Researchers are investigating a new type of highly versatile solar cell material, which could be used in space, and could bring about the next generation of solar panels.
Perovskite solar panels could be easily deposited onto most surfaces, including flexible and textured ones. The materials are also lightweight, cheap to produce, and as efficient as today’s leading photovoltaic materials, which are mainly silicon.
However, it currently faces issues with stability and a short lifespan which decreases further in high humidity, strong sunlight and at elevated temperatures.
While the properties of perovskite solar cells change in a range of atmospheric conditions, they remain remarkably stable outside the Earth’s atmosphere. This points to the potential for harvesting energy in space. The European Space Agency has revealed it would be investigating whether satellites could beam electricity back to Earth earlier this year.
Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR, an analytical chemistry technique that harnesses high magnetic fields and radiofrequencies targeted at atomic nuclei) the team hopes to uncover why perovskite solar panels degrade so quickly at an atomic level.
The European Research Council (ERC) has approved a starting grant of £2.2m which will involve the purchase of a 400MHz solid-state NMR spectrometer worth approximately £900K. It will be installed specifically for this project, enabling researchers to investigate the atomic-level structure of solar cells. The eventual aim is to help improve the durability of these devices, so they can be relied on for decades to come.
Scientists say the material would be viable in environmental scenarios where current technologies do not work well such as indoor light harvesting, use on highly flexible substrates, such as foils and fabrics, and in windows which require the material to be partially transparent.
Project leader Dr Dominik J. Kubicki, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick, said: “This study will help diversify sustainable energy sources and explore more options in the quest to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. We’re keen to understand more about why these solar cells degrade in different atmospheric conditions at the atomic level, so we can design new, better materials and ensure maximum efficiency of this new sustainable energy source.
“Silicone is the current material used in solar cells and while those devices have a long durability of over 20 years, they have certain limitations. Solar cells need to be relatively thick; silicon is brittle and it succumbs to cosmic radiation.
“Metal halide perovskites enable us to overcome these limitations, diversify the ways in which we can harvest solar energy, and apply them in contexts we had not previously anticipated.
“Investigating these materials will be very exciting and we hope to find out how to make them more stable.”