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Novel method paves way for cheaper solar panels

Posted: 25 Sep 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar power? solar cell? solar panel? perovskite? hybrid deposition?

Expensive solar panel is one of the reasons why solar power only has a dearth of investments. Researchers have worked on making solar cells (tile-like components of solar panels that absorb and transfer energy) more efficient and longer-lasting, but even these remain costly, preventing the technology to become mainstream.

Therefore, Professor Yabing Qi, head of the Energy Materials and Surface Sciences Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, has a different idea: make solar cells using a type of semiconductor called perovskite materials, which are, in Qi's words, "dirt cheap." If solar cells are cheap enough, Qi reasons that people will want to use them for the immediate payback in energy savings.

Now Professor Qi and members of his research unit have developed a new method for making perovskite solar cells worthy of attention, and The Royal Society of Chemistry published their findings in their journal, Energy & Environmental Science.

 Professor Qi and members of his research unit

Professor Qi and members of his research unit developed a hybrid deposition method to produce perovskite solar cells. From left: Yabing Qi, Sonia R. Raga, Shenghao Wang, Luis K. Ono and Yuichi Kato.

Qi's new method uses what he calls "hybrid deposition" to create perovskite solar cells, made from a mixture of inexpensive organic and inorganic raw materials. In addition, his solar cell is about a thousand times thinner than a silicon solar cell, and therefore uses far less material. Qi estimates that for the same price, he could either buy raw materials to build 1,000sqm of his solar cell, or he could buy about 20 wafers of crystallised silicon, to build 0.16sqm of traditional solar panels.

"Silicon is not rare," Qi explains, "but processing silicon requires expensive equipment and sophisticated steps demanding high temperature, vacuum or high pressure, and that makes crystallised silicon very expensive."

In contrast, the hybrid deposition process uses less energy to produce a solar cell at a far lower temperature. In fact, Qi envisions manufacturing the new solar cells using a low-cost printing process. The process would deposit the materials onto thin sheets of PET plastic very quickly to make large quantities of cheap solar cells.

 New design for solar cells

New, semi-transparent design for solar cells

Qi does not yet know the limits of his hybrid cells, but optimists in his field hope that they could reach 20 per cent efficiency. This means that that the solar cells will convert 20 per cent of the energy they absorb from the sun into usable energy, which is comparable to the best silicon solar panels on the market.

The extremely thin perovskite cell that Qi and his lab designed measures merely 135nm and reaches an efficiency of 9.9 per cent. Because these films are semi-transparent, Qi hopes to use them on windows, as a sort of lightweight set of blinds. "It will be a window and at the same time it will be a solar cell," he says. "Some of the light could go through and the rest will be absorbed. Then, a certain percentage of the absorbed light will be converted to electricity."

If solar cells are cheap enough, consumers will reap almost immediate benefits even if the solar cells are not the most efficient, because their savings on air conditioning and electricity will offset the expense. "If it's so cheap that it is like wallpaper, then you might as well use it," says Qi. "It's like a free gift. It's an investment with a lot of payback."

- Poncie Rutsch
?? Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

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