Australia pushes solar to new heights with perovskite breakthrough

| May 31, 2020

Solar is a fast-growing industry in Australia. There were over 2.2 million installations as of September of 2019. Those installations generate 13,904 MW of photovoltaic solar power. The country has experienced a significant increase in renewable energy since 2018, making it a leader in sustainability.

Generating more energy with existing technology is only part of the equation. Researchers in Australia are also looking for new and better ways to collect, convert, and use sunlight.

Perovskite Development Passes Humidity and Heat Tests

Australian scientists may have put Australia ahead of the rest of the world in the race to develop cheaper solar panels.

Perovskite is appealing because it is inexpensive to make and could further lower the cost of solar panel production. It is lightweight compared to conventional materials. It’s also flexible, which means that it can be rolled up for easy transport.

Flexibility also gives perovskite the benefit of being used directly on the exterior of structures that aren’t flat. This opens opportunities for building-integrated applications.

While perovskite sounds like the answer to a lot of problems, it has a downside. The crystal material isn’t durable. It is proven to have a solar conversion rate of up to 25% in laboratory conditions but cannot survive long outdoors in the elements. This limits the material’s commercial potential.

Researchers at Iowa State University also noticed the potential of perovskite and have attempted to create a version that can handle heat and humidity. However, 14 scientists led by Professor Anita Ho-Baillie at the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney may have finally discovered a solution that could make perovskite a practical alternative.

The team applied a coating of glass and synthetic rubber, called polyisobutylene (PIB), to perovskite cells. PIB is gas-permeable and used to manufacture fuel additives, sealants, adhesives, lubricants, cling-film, double-glazed windows, and even chewing gum. It belongs to a family of elastomers that are often used to create pressure-sensitive adhesives.

The new perovskite and coating combination went through international standard tests that require it to withstand temperatures ranging from -40C to 85C. It was also exposed to high humidity levels. So far, the team’s efforts have paid off.

It’s a world first to pass these three tests in a low-cost way,” explains Ho-Baillie in an interview with The Guardian. “Not only did the cells pass the thermal cycling tests, they exceeded the demanding requirements of damp-heat and humidity-freeze tests as well. Perovskite opens the market in ways that we hadn’t thought of. It’s lightweight, it’s flexible, and you could fold it up and roll it out. For us, the sky is the limit.”

Those are ambitious words but the journey to commercial production isn’t an easy one.

When Will Perovskite Solar Panels Appear on Consumer Markets?

The Australian team’s results are a big milestone for renewable energy. Their study was published in Science on 21 May 2020. It’s very promising, but there’s still a long way to go to get perovskite cells on the consumer market.

Australian National University associate professor Klaus Weber is an emerging solar cell technology expert. He wasn’t involved in the perovskite research but has a deep understanding of its potential and the path it must follow to become a viable product.

During an interview with The Guardian, Weber described this development as “an important step along the way to commercialisation. This is an important achievement which demonstrates the potential of this new technology to further lower the already low costs of photovoltaics.”

According to Weber, one of the most important things we now know is that the technology’s limited stability “can be addressed with good engineering.” He also warns that installers and consumers shouldn’t get too excited yet because it is too soon to expect to see perovskite panels for sale.

I would caution, however, that the commercialisation of a new technology is a long and complicated process, and that it requires many years before such a new technology becomes widely available. So, don’t hold off installing solar panel[s] in the belief that something better will be available tomorrow.”

Start with the Solar Panels of Today

The technology we have available today also has significant potential and comes with financial and environmental benefits. A traditional solar system doesn’t require fossil fuels to operate. It can localise energy production, reducing the strain on infrastructure.

The world record for most efficient solar cells is held by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. There, researchers were able to push efficiency to just over 47% using multi-junction concentrator solar cells. However, this does not reflect what is available to consumers.

The average solar panel that you can have installed on your home usually comes with an efficiency rating of between 15% and 20%. High-quality models may exceed 22% but most are not higher than 20% efficiency.

There may be outliers at the low and high ends, which is why homeowners should speak to a qualified installer before deciding on a product.

The world of solar energy is constantly advancing. Some improvements may not qualify as ground-breaking, but they still push the technology along. Solar batteries are also improving, which can give us more ways to generate and store electricity in more places.

Advancements on both fronts combined help us forge a road to renewable energy that’s even more accessible and affordable for people around the world.