Solar panels suffer from two fundamental problems that have continued to persists even after decades of research: they’re not very efficient, and they cost a lot to produce. At least one of these problems has to be solved beforesolar power can overtake cheap energy sources like fossil fuels, and some scientists have had their hopes pinned on a common mineral called perovskite. This is an organometal with peculiar light-absorbing properties, and a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield say they’ve figured out how to create high-efficiency perovskite solar cells with a spray painting process. Yes, spray-on solar panels might actually happen.
As is true of many technologies right now, the development of viable solar power is at an upward inflection point. Materials science in everything from mining to graphene production is furnishing researchers with better and better physical substrates for collection, while increasingly sophisticated electronics and design capture more and more of that energy as useful electricity. Yet there’s still one big problem: how do we actually make solar cells on a budget? This isn’t like a nuclear reactor, some big government infrastructure project; if solar is going to work on the large scale people are going to have to invest their personal money in generating at least some of their power. A new study from Sheffield University in the UK may have an answer: a spray-on solar cell that rivals some of the most efficient technology out there. Normally, designing solar technology is a zero sum game; if you want better efficiency, you have to make specialized micro- and nano-scale details, which makes the panel far more expensive. In the context of solar power, “efficiency” refers to the fraction of the sunlight hitting a cell which is actually converted to useful energy. This spray-on technology achieves a cool 11% efficiency, which is impressive given that this is a budget technology. Research cells can get up to 40% efficiency or even more but those could never actually take off in the consumer market. Any feasible solar power technology has to be able to be mass produced for a reasonable price-per-kilowatt produced.