Respectively, Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil predict that in the next 20 years somewhere between 50-100% of the US will be operating on solar energy.
Presently, the global petroleum-based oil and gas industry is earning over 5 trillion in revenue, with America laying claim to a fifth of that.
In other words, with a market already offering up a trillion dollar industry to forward-thinking entrepreneurs, how much more profit can be made if solar energy reduces its operating cost a hundredfold while doubling its efficiency?
This is an important question to ask, because if we want to see positive change in this world, we need humanism to become profitable. One of the most important humanistic endeavors I can imagine is ensuring the planet we all live on survives. So to keep the world from being destroyed by carbon emissions and fracking, we need to find new (intelligent) forms of energy that will be more cost-effective.
This is a blog about perovskite, an exciting new form of solar cell that in seven short years has shown it has the potential to fulfill that promise and therefore completely disrupt the energy industry.
Current Solar Technology
Currently, 90% of installed solar cells are made of semiconducting crystalline silicon, which release electrons (thus becoming electricity) when hit by photons from the sun.
Although these photovoltaic cells have been experiencing an exponential decrease in price per watt, falling from $76 in 1977 to less than $0.36 today, solar energy has still been limited to only 1% of America’s energy production.
So with solar nearing grid parity—the cost many believed would allow it to compete with gas and oil—why aren’t we seeing greater adoption?
Varun Sivaram gives us an answer in Vox while discussing his recent Scientific American article: “When solar starts to be deployed en masse, it starts competing with itself, particularly during sunny times, and drives its marginal value down… so if you really want to deploy solar power at scale… then solar panels are going to have to become as cheap as laying carpet or painting your wall.”
This is a major limitation that silicon is unlikely to overcome.
These solar panels have to be heavy, rigid, and glass-covered in order to protect the brittle silicon wafer created by an expensive process conducted at high temperatures (>1000 °C) in a vacuum inside of special clean room facilities.
Even worse, these silicon panels are limited by a thermodynamic efficiency ceiling, limiting them to a 30% solar-to-electric conversation rate.
Perovskite’s Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Characteristics
Perovskite’s incredible promise is the ability to overcome these limitations, increasing efficiency and performance rates beyond 30% while still getting cheaper, smaller, and more flexible.
Produced in a traditional lab environment, this organic-inorganic compound is far cheaper to produce than silicon.
At a size of .3 microns compared to silicon’s 150 microns (for reference, human hair is 75 microns thick), it’s far easier to work with too.
It can even be chemically altered to change color and transparency, allowing for architecture with integrated solar PV.
Think: entire cities with unnoticeable energy production built into their infrastructure.
Damion Milliken, chief technical officer at Dyesol—a company developing perovskite solar in Australia—explains: “Most [solar panels] have to be fitted onto buildings after the fact, which incur extra costs in materials and labour…”
“Perovskites therefore have an extra arrow in the quiver for future expansion opportunities and for achieving things like zero net energy buildings, which will require something like this technology to be integrated into building envelopes.”
“Most things in this area take decades to go through this evolution”, Milliken says. “Perovskite has the steepest inclination in efficiencies charted.”
Perovskite cells have shown an exciting potential to soar past silicon in performance as well.
They’ve managed to increase their performance from 3.8% in 2009 to over 20% today.
While still below the commercial standard of 25% exhibited by silicon, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates perovskite could potentially reach levels of 66% efficiency in the future.
As with any exponential technology, that future might be sooner than we think.
As recent as March 28, 2016, scientist at Cambridge discovered perovskite has the ability to actually recycle photons multiple times after their initial absorption, creating a sort of echo chamber of energy production.
“It’s a massive demonstration of the quality of this material and opens the door to maximising the efficiency of solar cells,” said Felix Deschler, one of the scientist involved in the discovery.
“The fabrication methods that would be required to exploit this phenomenon are not complicated,” Deschler explains further, “and that should boost the efficiency of this technology significantly beyond what we have been able to achieve until now.”
So with higher performance coming from a smaller, cheaper, and more flexible build, what’s holding Perovskite back?
Unfortunately, perovskite’s organic components degrade quickly when exposed to real world weather conditions (moisture in particular).
However, a team of researchers led by Mohammad Nazeeruddin at EPFL have recently created a new inorganic material that still allows for high efficiency(20.2%).
The material is called dissymmetric fluorene–dithiophene, and is one fifth the cost to synthesize than previous compounds ( 60$ a gram rather than 500$) that had been used to overcome this problem.
This revolutionary work may hold the key to future experimentation that will allow for perovskite cells to last longer while still being cost-effective.
Because one of perovskite’s constituent atoms is lead, these cells need to have a higher level of testing to ensure the lead can’t escape the enclosure.
This issue is considered by most working on perovskite to be easily surmountable, as progress has already been made in this area.
With the revolutionary work on recycling photons and the strengthening of perovskite’s stability, it seems this technology is on the verge of replacing the silicon wafers that have plateaued because of their expensive, delicate, and rigid build.
Perovskite holds the promise of integrated PV, allowing for an overabundance of energy to be harnessed even in cloudy environments.
With most academic institutes working on perovskite only focusing on the physics of the technology, a massive opportunity exist for anyone willing to invest time and money into applications focused on cost-effectiveness and life-cycle use.
A breakthrough here could create the very spearhead that leads the solar charge from 1% to an over 50% adoption rate in America and in the world beyond.
And with the environmental dangers of traditional energy becoming understood in the mainstream, we can expect public opinion and therefore public money to turn away from companies that harm the planet to instead go towards those innovators who are harnessing renewable energy sources.
Since there is no energy source more renewable and abundant than the sun, perovskite could be the very thing that allows humanity to finally meet all of its energy needs.
And when energy is abundant, clean water becomes an abundant possibility. Electricity and internet access becomes an abundant possibility.
With the whole world connected and absorbing power into revolutionary batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall, we can finally allow everyone around the planet (including the rising billion) to put aside their fight for survival and begin their pursuit of individualization, purchasing goods that further that end while contributing to the global market, providing a surge to the global economy unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.