Solar manufacturing giant Qcells is investing US$100 million in a pilot production line that incorporates perovskites, a “miracle” semiconductor material under development for more than a decade that could improve on the efficiency of existing solar cells by 50 to 75%.
“The commercialization of solar cells that use perovskite follows years of breakthroughs with the mineral,” The Independent reports. PVTech says the production line in Jincheon, South Korea will start up by late 2024, aiming to deliver commercially viable perovskite cells by 2026.
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“This investment in Jincheon will mark an important step in securing technological leadership,” said Justin Lee, CEO of Seoul-based Qcells. “With global R&D network spanning from Korea, Germany, and the U.S., Qcells will ramp up its efforts to produce high-efficiency advanced tandem cells.”
The tandem design is meant to “improve the efficiency of standard solar panels by splitting the light spectrum and optimizing the harvesting of energy from each section into electricity,” The Independent explains.
The approach points toward a drastic improvement in solar cell efficiency. The record for standard silicon-based cells is 22%, meaning they convert just over one-fifth of the available solar radiation into electricity. Last December, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin research lab in Germany achieved 32.5% efficiency with a perovskite-silicon tandem cell, in what was hailed as a “really big leap” for renewable energy. PV Tech says scientists at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology hit a 33.2% threshold in April.
While renewable energy is already gearing up to replace fossil fuels and lead the transition off carbon, perovskites could speed things up. “Solar PV and onshore wind are already the lowest-cost forms of electricity generation worldwide,” Stanford University energy transition specialist Mark Z. Jacobson told The Energy Mix in an email. But “any further improvement in solar PV efficiency and a resulting lower cost will only help to speed the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy worldwide.”
At the same time, “with perovskite, there are many ifs,” he added. “It may be too early to conclude what will happen, but there is promise due to its potential high efficiencies and low material cost. There is also competition among other advancing PV cell technologies, so it is too early to conclude what might happen in the next few years.”
Perovskites have been under development since 2009, but the Qcells announcement is the first time they’ve moved from the lab to the production floor. While it’s taken time for researchers to learn how to stabilize the material, its remarkable properties could be transformative for telecommunications as well as solar production.
“Perovskites are semiconductors with a special crystal structure that makes them well suited for solar cell technology,” the Princeton University School of Engineering and Applied Science explained last year. “They can be manufactured at room temperature, using much less energy than silicon, making them cheaper and more sustainable to produce. And whereas silicon is stiff and opaque, perovskites can be made flexible and transparent, extending solar power well beyond the iconic panels that populate hillsides and rooftops across America.”
Until now, there’s always been a catch. “Unlike silicon, perovskites are notoriously fragile,” Princeton wrote. “Early perovskite solar cells, created between 2009 and 2012, lasted only minutes.”
But last June, Princeton Engineering researchers said they had come up with a design that could offer a 30-year operating life, well above the 20-year threshold for conventional solar cells. “The device is not only highly durable, it also meets common efficiency standards,” the university said at the time. “It is the first of its kind to rival the performance of silicon-based cells, which have dominated the market since their introduction in 1954.”
That’s a big advance over the persistent challenge facing perovskites. “Nobody has yet been able to overcome the instability of perovskite cells sufficiently to scale them for industrial production,” The Independent says. “Exposure to the elements causes the substance to degrade, diminishing its performance significantly and potentially exposing toxic elements.
Now, Qcells is trying to pull its tandem cells toward commercialization, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Colorado Boulder pursue research under an $18-million federal contract to make the cells more durable and “commercially relevant”, The Independent states. Researchers in Singapore have also figured out how to remove lead from perovskite cell structures.