A new material for solar panels could make them cheaper, more efficient

Dec 11, 2013 by Tona Kunz
An illustration of the perovskite crystal fabricated in the experiment. Click to enlarge. Credit: Felice Macera.

A unique solar panel design made with a new ceramic material points the way to potentially providing sustainable power cheaper, more efficiently, and requiring less manufacturing time. It also reaches a four-decade-old goal of discovering a bulk photovoltaic material that can harness energy from visible and infrared light, not just ultraviolet light.

Scaling up this new design from its tablet-size prototype to a full-size solar panel would be a large step toward making solar power affordable compared with other means of producing electricity. It would also help the nation toward its goal of creating a that receives one-third of its power through wind and solar sources.

This affordable sun-powered future could be closer than we think thanks to early tests on this new material, which was developed by a team led by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The tests were conducted, in part, at the Advanced Photon Source housed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

The team created a new class of ceramic materials that has three main benefits. First, it can produce a solar panel that is thinner than today's silicon-based market leaders by using one material to do the work of two. Second, it uses cheaper materials than those used in today's high-end thin-film solar panels. Third, the material is ferroelectric, which means it can switch polarity, a key trait for exceeding the theorized limits of today's .

Part of the reason have low efficiency is that the particles collected from the sun enter the solar cell and spread out in all directions. Getting them all to flow one direction typically requires layers of different channeling material. Each time the particles pass between these layers some get lost, decreasing the energy efficiency of the solar cell. The team's new design uses fewer layers to limit loss and uses ferroelectric material to use up less energy channeling the particles.

It took more than five years to model and design a material with this combination of properties. The material uses perovskite crystals made with a combination of potassium niobate and barium nickel niobate. It has shown significant improvement over today's classic ferroelectric material. The new material can absorb six times more energy and transfer a photocurrent 50 times denser. Further tuning of the material's composition should expand efficiency, the scientists say.

"This family of materials is all the more remarkable because it is comprised of inexpensive, non-toxic and earth-abundant elements, unlike compound semiconductor materials currently used in efficient thin-film solar cell technology," said Jonathan Spanier, a team member from Drexel's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The work is outlined in a paper "Perovskite oxides for visible-light-absorbing ferroelectric and photovoltaic " published last month in the journal Nature.

The researchers used X-ray crystallography and powder diffraction at Sector 11 of the APS to ensure the material had the crystal structure and symmetry they intended. This instrument and its unique mail-in program afford convenient and rapid access to the highest-resolution powder diffraction data available in North America, providing a very detailed and accurate picture of this 's atomic structure.

Using a suite of experimental tools, the research team demonstrated the material's ability to move energy in one direction without crossing layers, thus minimizing energy loss. This ability called bulk photovoltaic effect has been known since the 1970s but, until now, was only observable in ultraviolet light, and most of the energy from the sun is in the visible and infrared spectrum.

By adjusting the percentages of component elements in this new material, the research team demonstrated that they can reduce the amount of energy needed to induce conduction, a level called bandgap.

"The parent material's bandgap is in the UV range," Spanier said, "but adding just 10 percent of the barium nickel niobate moves the bandgap into the visible range and close to the desired value for efficient solar-energy conversion."

Explore further: Scientists seek a newer, cheaper solar panel

More information: www.nature.com/nature/journal/… ull/nature12622.html

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User comments : 13

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MR166
1.3 / 5 (10) Dec 11, 2013
Wow more free power!!!!! When I was a kid I remember browsing through the JC Whitney catalog and looking at all the improvements that I could make to my car. If I bought and installed all of them I could actually improve my gas mileage so much that my gas tank would start to overflow in just a few miles.
Yahp
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2013
Sorry to say, but this excerpt is poorly written. What's this talk about "collecting particles from the sun" and spreading and flowing those "particles" around? The "particle" arriving from the sun (if so to speak) would be photons whose energy would be used to generate pairs of electrons and holes (call it carrier generation). Which in turn would be travelling around in the solar cell. And they do not "get lost" between layers, if anything they recombinate.

Other facts on the superiority of this material cannot be learned from the excerpt provided here or from the abstract at nature.com.
Yahp
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2013
Ok, after all, this is the third incarnation of excerpting this particular Nature paper within the last month.

See:
http://phys.org/n...tml#nRlv
http://phys.org/n...tml#nRlv
Dug
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 11, 2013
About once a month there is a "new" material or a reconfiguration of old materials that are going to make solar panels drastically cheaper by being dramatically and or even exponentially more efficient. However, in the real world solar panels have only become incrementally cheaper over the past decade. When did science become this giant PR game fest with little to no substance and even less ethics?
Shootist
2 / 5 (5) Dec 12, 2013
physorg prints one of these "EXCITING BREAKTHROUGH" in Watermelon tech ever couple of days.

Too bad the "breakthroughs" never make it to market.
JRi
1 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2013
Anyone having access to the original article? How good solar-to-electricity efficiencies did they manage to obtain with their invention?
Cocoa
2 / 5 (4) Dec 12, 2013
shootist - "Too bad the "breakthroughs" never make it to market."

Actually they do make it to market. It often takes a while - as there is a great deal of risk in bringing new technologies to market - so companies understandably need the products to be tested very carefully.

This is an interesting article - it describes how the different PV technologies have improved in efficiency over the years.

http://misfitsarc...iciency/

The last graph in the article shows the cost curves for the electricity produced from PV - alongside that of other power sources. Very encouraging. I say keep up the good work Physorg in giving us a one stop portal for these emerging technologies - shame there are so many naysayers out there - guess that is the nature of humans.
Yahp
1 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2013
I really do not like to be put into one bag with the naysayers. I was just pointing out some objective flaws of the excerpt and the fact that this is the third article on physorg on the same paper - not the same topic, but exactly the same paper. So this is really not helping the cause of physorg at all.

And FYI, I invest money and time in renewables, do you?
Cocoa
1 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2013
"And FYI, I invest money and time in renewables, do you?"

Yes.

Also note that I was replying to Shootists comment - I was not including you in the term naysayer.

But if you want a response - I do fail to see how it hurts any one if Physorg happens to repeat a story. It seems that there is a group of posters always sitting in the wings waiting to attack Physorg for being bias, or sloppy, etc. My view is that if folks don't like the approach of Physorg, why not just go elswhere - instead of being so negative all the time? Does it really hurt you if they repeat a story? I am quite able to say 'Oh - seen that story already - move on to the next one'
Yahp
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2013
"Yes"

Good :)

Very well then. As for the reputation of physorg (not including the comment section of course since that is really below any measurable standards most of the time) or the approach if you like to call it that way. I am just arguing that a scientific blog (lets call it that) should at least aim not to be too colloquial but try to use proper terminology. It's simply showing that the author knows what he is writing about if it is not outright BS...

Any hints on good "elsewheres" are appreciated anyways ;)

Cocoa
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2013
Any hints on good "elsewheres" are appreciated anyways ;)

I also read mit technology review, terrawatts.com, cleantechnica, greentechmedia, autobloggreen, renewable energy world, the energy collective, RenewablesBiz, kurzweilai.net etc. pretty much every day. You can clearly see my bias - which I am fine with. Physorg is by far the most concentrated source of information. What bothers me is the group of commenters - who spend time on Physorg, but then attack it all the time. I just don't see why it is so hard to understand the idea behind - spend your time on the web sites that you like, and ignore the ones you don't like. The comments section is much better served by people contributing to the information in a constructive way - not tearing it down.

Cheers.
Yahp
not rated yet Dec 14, 2013
Thanks, I will have a look, although I doubt that I will find the time to read eight more blogs on a regular basis. But again, I do not attack physorg, just the flaws of this particular article. Try to see it that way, I want physorg to become better 'cos I like reading good news. So actually I do not want to ignore it... But I see what you are going for, so I shall try to be even more constructive next time ;)
Cocoa
not rated yet Dec 14, 2013
Point taken Yahp - thanks.

I like Physorg over all of the other sites - as they provide such a wide variety of information - in such a user friendly format.

If your interest is in providing positive feedback - while basically appreciating the site - good on you.