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Another Major Breakthrough For Solar Energy

During America’s last election cycle, one of President Trump’s key campaign promises was to revive the dying coal sector and bring back coal jobs. But even intense lobbying by the president has done little to stem the tide as coal plants continue to drop out at a steady clip.  The recent retirement of TVA’s giant 1,150 megawatt-Paradise 3 coal plant, despite Trump’s impassioned pleas, serves as a grim reminder that coal’s best days are behind it, with the U.S. Department of Energy acknowledging as much in its latest report.

The so-called natural gas bridge has lately become the bane of coal. Now, next-generation perovskite solar cells are likely to not only put the final nail in the coal’s coffin but also to twist the knife into a suffering oil and gas industry.

Back in May, we reported that the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) had forged a public-private consortium dubbed the US-MAP for U.S. Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium, which aims to fast-track the development of low-cost perovskite solar cells for the global marketplace.

That partnership appears to be bearing fruit, with the consortium recently announcing highly encouraging advancements in perovskite technology that could boost the efficiency of perovskite solar cells from the current ceiling of ~25% to a dreamy 66%.

High-Performance Perovskite PV Coming

Silicon panels pretty much rule the solar energy sector, with more than 90% of panels manufactured using the versatile element.

Silicon PV cells have their advantages: They’re quite robust and relatively easy to install. Thanks to advances in manufacturing methods, they’ve also become less expensive, especially over the past decade, particularly the polycrystalline panels constructed in Chinese factories.

However, they still come with a significant drawback: Silicon PV panels are quite inefficient, with the most affordable models managing only 7%-16% energy efficiency depending on factors such as placement, orientation, and weather conditions. Indeed, solar cells have been around for more than six decades, yet commercial silicon has barely scraped into the 25% range, maxing out at a theoretical 30%. This sad state of affairs is due to the fact that Si panels are wafer-based rather than thin-film, which makes them sturdier and more durable. The trade-off, however, is efficiency.  

Related: Three Energy Stocks To Watch On Election Day

To meet the world’s rapidly growing energy appetite—and achieve the kind of de-carbonization goals that would help slow the impact of climate change—it would actually take hundreds of years to build and install enough silicon PV panels. Obviously, this is way too slow to be practical for our purpose, considering that we have a mere 10-year window to act to avert irreversible and catastrophic climate change. For years, scientists have experimented with alternative crystal formations that would allow panels of similar size to capture more energy. Until now, few designs emerged that were commercially viable, particularly thin-film cells that could theoretically achieve much higher levels of efficiency.

Thin-film PV panels can absorb more light and thus can produce more energy. These panels can be manufactured cheaply and quickly, meeting more energy demand in less time. There are a few different types of thin-film out there, all of them a little different from standard crystalline silicon (c-si) PV panels. 

Amorphous silicon (a-Si) panels are the oldest form of thin-film: a chemical vapor deposits a thin layer of silicon onto glass or plastic, producing a low weight panel that isn’t very energy efficient, managing 13.6%. Then there are cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels, which uses the cadmium particle on glass to produce a high-efficiency panel. The drawback there is the metal cadmium, which is toxic and difficult to produce in large quantities. 

These panels are usually produced using evaporation technology: the particles are superheated, and the vapor is sprayed onto a hard surface, such as glass. They are thin, but not as dependable or durable as c-si panels, which currently dominate the market. Perovskite has so far proven to be the most promising and has now managed to break the efficiency glass ceiling.

Perovskites are a family of crystals named after Russian geologist Leo Perovski. They share a set of characteristics that make them potential building blocks for solar cells: high superconductivity, magnetoresistance, and ferroelectricity. Perovskite thin-film PV panels can absorb light from a wider variety of wave-lengths, producing more electricity from the same solar intensity.

In 2012, scientists finally succeeded in manufacturing thin-film perovskite solar cells, which achieved efficiencies…

Read More: Another Major Breakthrough For Solar Energy

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