Solar energy encompasses a lot of parallel engineering fields. In many ways, it’s not really like any other power generation field available. Rather than “power plants,” you have “solar farms”, which spread a vast array of kilowattage across a very wide area. Space remains critical when it comes to solar engineering. For all the advancements that solar engineers have made over the years, the fact of the matter is that it still takes a heck of a lot of space in order to produce an equivalent energy output as a single nuclear cooling tower or coal plant.
In the early 2000s, Japanese scientist and engineer Tsutomu Miyasaka began experimenting with new methods of solar generation. At present, the vast majority of solar panels in the world are still reliant on silicon – a cheap, hardy material that’s just tough enough to withstand long periods outside in the sun while also conductive enough to convert photons to electricity. But when Miyasaka caught wind of a new substance from one of his students, he was just piqued enough to investigate.
Perovskite sounds like some kind of Russian vodka, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The earliest perovskites were minerals, calcium titantes (CaTiO3) first discovered in the 19th century. Recently, scientists have cooked up other kinds of perovskites, involving different elements to create differnet “flavors” of the material. Perovskites, by themselves, aren’t the greatest or strongest or most remarkable materials of all time – but what they lack in power they make up for with the peculiar photovoltaic abilities.
Owing to their chemical structure, perovskites are capable of generating light if an electric current is sent through the material. Miyasaka began experimenting with the opposite- to see if perovskites could generate electricity if he sent light through.
As early as 2009, Japanese scientists experimented with replacing silicon with perovskite compounds, to promising early results. When he and his team replaced the traditional light-sensitive components of a solar cell with perovskite, the cell produced some extra electricity after prolonged exposure to light.
After another eight years in research and development, perovskite solar cells are just about ready to hit the market. There are a variety of reasons why perovskites might, in the future, surpass traditional silicon cells: they’re cheaper and easier to build, and can boldly harness ambient light energy and go where no solar cell has gone before – translucent coatings on windows, or even on cloudy days.
But perovskites aren’t perfect. For one thing, they’re a lot more fragile than the traditional silicon cells. They can’t handle high or low temperatures well either, degrading far quicker than silicon. Scientists will have to find a new way to boost their durability while keeping their efficiency. The sight of a cityscape where every window and windshield becomes a miniature solar farm sounds like an appealing vision to the environmentally-minded among us, but it may have to wait until the technology catches up.