The future of solar energy: cutting-edge materials and technology

4:18 pm

22 January 2019

Save on electricity, get cleaner electric power and bring light to the poorest areas, where infrastructure and access are not yet available to everyone: now more than ever, the transformation of energy production systems is a crucial part of sustainable development. Research is focused above all on the development of more efficient, more environmentally friendly and, if possible, cheaper photovoltaic systems that are affordable for everyone.

A matter of substance
Research on this subject mainly relates to chemistry, physics and nanotechnology: scientists who study materials are the driving force behind change in the industry. A notable example is Dane deQuilettes, one of the ten most promising researchers in the world according to the ranking published in late 2018 by Nature – a leading international magazine for scientists and innovators –, is currently working on what could become “the material of the future” for solar energy.

The best candidate so far is called perovskite. Perovskites are a class of crystalline oxides with extraordinary magnetic, optical and electrical properties, as well as impressive conductivity, manageability and versatility. If all goes well, in other words if this new generation of substances proves to be superior in every respect compared to silicon (currently the most popular option for photovoltaic systems), it will mark a momentous turning point.

Technological promises
One of the advantages of this class of materials is that they are extremely advantageous from an economic point of view, even if considerable work is required to study them in depth and to develop the technologies that use them for the first time.

The flagship project in this field – led by deQuilettes – is based at the famous Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) in Boston. It is called GridEdge Solar and the main aim is to test perovskites, as well as other materials, in order to determine their ability to create panels that are as light and flexible as possible and, through an incredibly interdisciplinary approach, to develop pilot plants that can then be scaled up and exported to developing countries such as India.

Perovskites under the microscope
But why perovskites? For scientists they are above all an important resource because they can be reduced to a form very similar to that of ink. They can therefore be printed on folding, flexible rollers that can be transported, assembled, disassembled and transferred in a very agile, fast and, consequently, less expensive way than is necessary for classic rigid panels.

Looking at them closely, under the lens of the most advanced systems for examining materials, once deposited on the supports they have adjustable surface characteristics which, according to deQuilettes, can be “pushed” towards specific properties, optimizing efficiency.

Looking to the future
Even if the cost of classic silicon cells, which supply 1.7% of global electricity, is reduced even further, it would probably not be enough to support the almost 1.5 billion people who are still cut off from the network. Change is not an option, but a necessity.

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