The most exciting developments in solar technology right now

Yesterday I was delving through some work on the most exciting technologies coming through in the solar power space at the moment.

It’s just some of the online research provided by Energy Transition Consultancy ThunderSaidEnergy, founded by Rob West, who used to run the energy research team at Bernstein.

It’s a small new firm that’s trying to change the way we think about the energy transition and it’s terribly fascinating stuff.

In fact, the core premise is that people are massively underestimating the opportunity to de-carbonise the production of oil and gas. For example, producing a barrel of oil can emit 20kgs of carbon (the industry average), or it can emit 0.67kgs per barrel (the best in the world). It just depends on how you go about it.

Then again – the reason ThunderSaid is looking at that is because it takes for granted that renewables will take over half the electricity demand and a quarter of global energy demand by 2050.

And that’s what we’re actually going to look at today.

In solar you see, there is a huge problem of efficiency that everybody is trying to solve.

Yes – costs are way down, and installations are way up.

But there is a concern that much of the development of solar panels is now behind us. We’ve certainly come a long way since NASA put a few little panels on its early spacecraft in the 1960s.

But just recently, a new record was broken, and over the last couple of years a new material has emerged as a potential boost to the industry.

The former is a fascinating technology.

It’s a technical feat as much as anything – not near commercial application yet as it was only a tiny panel of material, tested in a laboratory environment.

Having said that, it achieved a record efficiency for converting light into power.

A solar panel works by converting light into heat. And it does a pretty good job, all things considered.

Installations currently employed across the globe can turn between 10-25% of the solar energy into electrical energy – to power our lights and charge our phones.

But in this case, “a monolithic, series-connected, six-junction inverted metamorphic structure under 143 suns concentration” has achieved a 47.1% efficiency.

What exactly is that, and how has it done so?

Well, there’s obviously a few elements to it.

Firstly, ‘143 suns concentration’ means that it was subjected to more than just the normal amount of sun – what you or I would get from lying out in the local common.

Concentrated solar is the concept of using mirrors and magnification to amplify the amount of solar energy hitting a particular spot.

The most important bit though is where it says ‘six-junction’.

The point here is that light is not a uniform entity. It’s made up of a series of waves, seen by the human eye as the different colours of the rainbow.

And most solar cells only capture the energy from the ‘red’ wave, which has the longest wavelength. That length means that more of it can be captured by the solar cell, which is why most existing cells have focused on capturing that energy in particular.

You can see what I mean, here:

Source: ThunderSaidEnergy

A six-junction cell, built as this was, is designed to capture energy from six different wavelengths of sunlight.

Six different alloys were required and fitted perfectly together in order to capture the maximum amount of energy from each wavelengths. In the end, it took almost eight hours to build, with 140 separate layers.

The alloys included boron, aluminium, gallium and indium, nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic and antimony in different combinations and ratios. So we’re starting to build a picture of just how complex this is.

And in the end, they only built a cell which was only 0.1cm2. So not exactly huge. I mean, it’s a lab experiment and nothing more for the time being, but the possibility of building cells which capture more than one or two wavelengths of light is very exciting.

It’s pretty far out for now. But that’s not all…

I mentioned there was also a material which has revolutionary promise in the space.

They’re called perovskites.

It’s a group of materials with exceptional electrical properties. What’s more, it’s a UK company called Oxford PV that is one of the main companies working on it.

And Rob West of ThunderSaid describes this as the fastest improving technology in solar.

The improvements in perovskite efficiency have improved much faster than any other technology since 2009.

Well-constructed films using perovskite can absorb almost all photons from the light that hits it. A key benefit is the ability to reduce the use of silicon, which is costly to handle and use.

It’s certainly not proven at any commercial level yet – Rob calls gives it a ‘Technical Readiness Level’ of 5 (out of 9), but if you combine the improvements in this material with the record-breaking six-junction cell, then there is plenty to be excited about in terms of improving solar power.

Back in 2017, Oil Major Equinor pledged $31m as part of Oxford PV’s $70m Series D funding round, so you can see that it’s not pipe dream.

The interesting thing is that I’m showing you these technologies, but from a technological point of view, Rob West who is the founder and writes the research, thinks that technological advances in solar (and wind too) are slowing. This is based on trawling through hundreds and hundreds of patents for each energy transition technology.

He almost takes those two crucial renewable energies for granted – they’re all set to increase their share of renewable power hugely over the coming decades, as both are cost-efficient and are seeing

Instead, he sees much of the technological improvements coming from other areas.

I interviewed him for an upcoming investor summit, a sequel to the Beyond Oil summit we did back in March.

We’re calling it, very innovatively… Beyond Oil Two.

I wanted Beyond Beyond Oil, but that was widely criticised – oh well.

I also interview the founder of an energy transition corporate finance firm, which has actually been involved with helping Oxford PV raise money in the private markets – the Series D fundraise that I mentioned earlier.

Anyway, to hear me ask Rob about where he sees the best and most cost-efficient opportunities in the energy transition, I believe there’s now a link to sign up to the summit.

Oh look there it is.

Click here.


And have a great weekend,

Kit Winder
Editor, UK Uncensored

1 Comment
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