Solar cells have two major issues that technological progress in this field aims to address:
1. Low efficiency
In 1961, William Shockley and Hans Queisser developed a study that is considered the fundamental principle of the solar photovoltaic industry. The physical theory proved that there is a maximum possible efficiency of 33.7 percent which a photovoltaic cell can achieve to obtain electricity from a light source. The best solar panels today have efficiencies ranging from 19 to 23%, which means there is still plenty of room to improve.
2. High production cost
Current solar cells are expensive to manufacture, requiring tremendous heat to shape the silicon and releasing carbon emissions as well as toxic byproducts in the process. The key ingredient, polysilicon, has unexpectedly become more expensive, increasing the production costs of solar panels. Silicone itself has physical limitations that hold back the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells.
There are other goals, of course, including better flexibility, durability, smaller size, and lighter weight. Some of these goals are being achieved through alternative chemicals and materials in the build of solar cells.
Different materials are being used to build the cells themselves. For instance, perovskite, a crystal with excellent light-absorbing qualities, is currently showing promising results, although the development of larger solar cells made from perovskite hasn’t been achieved yet. A more stable solution could come in the form of ‘tandem’ perovskite/polysilicon cells, with each material capturing different wavelengths of light and therefore performing better than a cell made from purely one material.
Perovskite solar cells could allow solar cells to avoid the polysilicon bottleneck, making solar energy much cheaper than it is now. Perovskite crystals can be molded at lower temperatures than silicon.
Some in the solar cell industry identify different "generations" of solar cell technology. The third generation, which is currently being developed for commercial and public use, features non-semiconductor technologies (including polymer-based cells and biomimetics), quantum dot technologies, tandem/multi-junction cells, hot-carrier cells, and upconversion technologies. Dye-sensitized solar cells are another feature of the 3rd generation. These are essentially printable solar cells made from specialized semiconducting polymer-based inks. Although they are easily produced, they feature a much lower efficiency (2-3%) than conventional solar cells.
Third generation cells are flexible and could see use in a variety of new cases, including solar charging for current smartphones which would be incredibly handy for sunny regions that have less developed electric grids such as Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
There are many more examples of how we’re using technology to implement solar in new areas, including solar glass, solar shingles, even solar transport. We will discuss the future of solar technology in our upcoming article. Until then, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter to see how FUERGY builds the foundation for energy decentralization by optimizing the energy efficiency of renewables.
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