How renewable energy could be transformed

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Cheaper and greener electricity demand means that the energy landscape is changing faster than at any other time in history. This is especially true for solar-powered electricity and battery storage. The cost of both has dropped at unprecedented rates over the past decade, and energy-efficient technologies such as LED lighting have also expanded.

Access to cheap and ubiquitous solar energy and storage will transform the way we produce and use energy, allowing the electrification of the transport sector. There is potential for new chemical-based savings in which we store renewable energy as fuel and support new devices that make up an “internet of things”.

But our current energy technologies will not lead us to this future: we will soon reach the limits of efficiency and cost. The potential for future cost reductions in solar silicon electricity, for example, is limited. The manufacture of each panel requires a fair amount of energy, and factories are expensive to build. And, although the cost of production can be reduced, the costs of a solar installation are now dominated by the extract – installation, wiring, electronics and so on.

This means that current solar energy systems are unlikely to meet the required fraction of our global 30 TeraWatt energy requirements, fast enough to address issues such as climate change.

Likewise, our current LED lighting and display technologies are too expensive and do not have a good enough color quality to realistically replace traditional lighting in a short enough time. This is a problem, as lighting currently accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions. Thus, new technologies are needed to fill this gap and quite quickly.

What technology is produced in this regard

A laboratory from Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halogen perovskites. They are semiconductors and conduct charge when stimulated by light. Perovskite inks are stored on glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – about a hundredth the width of a human hair – made of metal, halogen and organic ions. When interposed between electrode contacts, these films produce solar cell or LED devices.

Amazingly, the color of the light they absorb or emit can be changed simply by changing their chemical structure. By changing the way we grow them, we can adapt them to be more suitable for light absorption (for a solar panel) or light emission (for an LED). This allows us to make different colored solar cells and LEDs that emit ultraviolet light, almost infrared.

These technologies are rapidly being marketed, especially on the solar cell front. Oxford Photovoltaics in the UK has built a production line and is fulfilling its first purchase orders in early 2021. Although the first products are already appearing, there are still challenges. A key issue is to demonstrate long-term stability. But research is promising, and once they are solved, these technologies could really drive the transformation of our energy production and consumption.

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