Are we at a Turning point in Solar Cell Development?

We could see a revolution in the way we produce electricity in the next few years that could help fight climate change. Researchers are working on organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells, the third generation of solar cell technology.

Solar panels are now a common sight on houses, fields and larger dedicated solar farms with run up costs often the same or cheaper than a coal power station.

Conventional solar cells are the individual parts that make up a solar panel, which then amplifies and directs the energy absorbed and generated by each cell.

Solar cells currently have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years which is transforming the system, but new research is experimenting with using a different material that is thinner, less expensive and more flexible.oweverH

Silicon has been used by manufacturers to make solar panels up to now because the material was found to be the most efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

Organic cells are very strong absorbents of light, being able to utilise larger amounts of sunlight than other solar cells. Organic power is the future of solar technology. Even when conventional solar technologies have met their match, organic power continues to offer almost boundless possibilities thanks to its extraordinary properties.

However, organic photovoltaics made from carbon and plastic have the potential to be a cheaper way of generating electricity.

The word organic relates to the fact that carbon-based materials are at the core of these devices rather than silicon. Most of us are already familiar with the square or rectangular solid solar panels which need fixed installation points usually on roofs or in flat fields.

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) can be made of compounds that are dissolved in ink which means they can be printed on thin rolls of plastic. They can then be bent or curved around structures or even be incorporated into clothing.

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) has many advantages including its lightweight nature, large area coverage and low cost of manufacturing. These thin-filmed solar cells have the possibility of storing larger amounts of solar energy than the widely used silicon solar cells. This new technology is driving the solar energy industry forward as new R&D makes it possible for increased sustainability.

Though organic solar cells have a higher efficiency than their silicon- based counterparts their operational lifetime is not currently as long. Organic solar cells are still in their development phase with various new materials, processing methods and device architectures being tested.

Research is being led by Dr Ross Hatton in the UK, associate professor of physical chemistry at the University of Warwick. The research is focusing on converting light directly into electricity using semiconducting materials while removing the need for parts, emissions and fuel.

The most recent thin film technologies are printed at room temperature and produce no toxic materials using carbon-based molecules rather than silicon.

The research shows that this new technology is so efficient that the energy it takes to make them could be made back in just a week compared to about a year for current solar panels.

This could lead to Britain being able to create its own energy and help off-grid homes and businesses.

Dr Hatton said:

“These new solar cells could be available in the next few years. We are at a turning point. Renewable energy gives us an opportunity to make a difference and do something really meaningful.”

Dr Hatton believes that big changes to the way we generate electricity are on their way and reminds us all how quickly technology has evolved and affected the way we go about our lives.

He went on to say:

“Eleven years ago, the iPhone had just come out, revolutionising communication. In the UK, one to two percent of total electricity generated 11 years ago was renewable, today that is 11%. The UK has committed to reduce greenhouse emissions to zero. In 11 years’, time, I am optimistic we can deliver on our promises. We have created the technology; it is about deployment of the technology and behavioural changes.”

Dr Hatton believes that young people are in the best position to embrace the new technology and bring about change, citing the influence of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The research into organic solar cells formed part of a climate change discussion at the British Science Festival.

Chinese researchers have also been making major steps forward in the development of a new generation of solar cells in the last couple of years.

In the past commercial solar photovoltaics have usually converted 15-22% of sunlight reaching a world record for a silicon cell of 27.3% in the summer of 2018.

Up until recently organics have stuck at around half this rate but this is changing. Last year researchers were able to reach 15% in tests, but new studies push this beyond 17% with the authors of the study saying that up to 25% is possible.

This is important because according to estimates, with even 15% efficiency and a 20-year lifetime, organic solar cells could produce much cheaper electricity.

Organic Solar Cells is the next step for solar energy, making this technology affordable for more people due to the solar cell price reduction of solar cells.