Perovskite: a cheap alternative to silicon-based solar panels

First posted 17th September 2013

The hunt to find a cheap alternative to silicon-based solar cells has landed upon perovskite. With rising efficiency and low costs, could the humble mineral herald a price revolution in the solar energy market?

Solar technology might just one day save the planet – the only problem is that, despite many promising technological developments, it remains an expensive alternative for most domestic and commercial energy requirements. Traditional silicon-based solar panels have reached the highest efficiency yet this year, at 44.4%, courtesy of Sharp, but that’s far above the standard seen in commercial installations. Much of the focus in the development of solar technology has shifted to making these silicon cells much less expensive, without losing efficiency.

Although many alternatives have been explored for the rather-pricey silicon in solar cells, none have yet proven themselves practical from a market perspective. The proposal to use plant material as a substitute, for example, has gone no further than a couple of overly-enthusiastic news stories. A good contender is the Dye-Sensitised Solar Cells (DSSCs), which, asides from being cheaper than silicon panels, are as easy to manufacture as silicon cells, are also mildly transparent to boot.

The problem was that no DSSC is nearly as efficient as it needed to be for practical considerations.

Until now.

 

Since 2009 many researchers have been looking to perovskite as the new miracle material in DSSCs. It was initially disappointing in tests, achieving only 3.5% efficiency (which still isn’t that bad) and lasting only seconds (which is pretty bad).

In August 2013, however, stable prototype perovskite solar panels were developed by Swiss research centre EPFL that achieved 15%, and researchers are predicting that they could squeeze up to 25% efficiency out of the cells, which would place it on-par with commercially available silicon-based solar panels.

With any impressive sudden advancement or optimistic prediction in solar cell technology, it is important to temper excitement with caution, but it’s hard not to be blown away by the latest perovskite panels. The idea that such a common mineral like perovskite could pave the way for cheap, reliable and available renewable energy is rather exciting, but it will take a few years to see whether or not the technology will deliver on its promises. The cost of manufacturing silicon panels is falling all the time – by the time the perovskite panels are ready for wide usage, silicon panels may have fallen to the same price as DSSCs.

There has also been the suggestion that using perovskite DSSCs with traditional silicon cells in combination might raise efficiency even farther than either of them could reach alone. However the technology plays out we can be assured that DSSCs will become an important solar product in the years to come.

As solar technology becomes a larger contributor to global energy production, the incentive to drive manufacturing costs down and make the technology as widely available as possible is enormous. Let’s hope that investors will see perovskite as a material worth researching further, so that this exciting technology will see the light of day.