A technician installing solar panels | Photo credits Bloomberg

The solar industry has made incredible strides in improving the efficiency of solar cells in recent years. However, despite the impressive gains, there is a pressing need for a breakthrough in solar cell technology that can significantly enhance their efficiency.

Such a development from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabi could be the final missing piece in the puzzle that would ensure green energy is a more viable alternative to fossil sources of electricity like crude oil, which according to a study by ClientEarth, can be blamed for much of the climate change issues the world is facing.

The Next Big Break in Solar Cell Efficiency

Researchers across the world could from now henceforth turn their focus to KAUST’s breakthrough. The engineers at the university claim to have cracked the code and succeeded in making the most efficient solar cell in the world using what they call a “tandem” solar cell.

A tandem solar cell differs from conventional solar cells manufactured using silicon as the primary material. Despite their widespread adoption, getting more efficiency from traditional solar cells has become impossible due to the underlying physical constraints.

The researchers at KAUST built the tandem solar cell using a combination of two materials; silicon and perovskite to achieve record-breaking efficiency.

A close-up of the new tandem solar cell | Credits KAUST

Over the last 14 years, perovskite has come up as a strong contender for Silicon’s dominant position in the market, improving efficiency from roughly 4% to more than 25% by 2021, according to a report by New Atlas on “efficient perovskite solar cells.”

Industry data from Statista on “Solar cells efficiency share 2020, by type” shows that mono-crystalline solar cells have been found to have an efficiency rate of 26.7% in laboratory conditions.

Additionally, commercial wafer-based silicon modules have seen an improvement in efficiency, with rates increasing from 15% to 20% in the last decade.

While these findings suggest a promising future for the efficiency of solar cells, the engineers at KAUST combined silicon and perovskite in their discovery—the tandem solar cell.

Meanwhile, Science Alert said in a related report that the efficiency of solar panels depends greatly on the material used to build them. There are several materials available for use, each with its unique properties and characteristics. These materials differ in effectiveness, cost, and ease of integration into reliable and scalable solar panel designs.

In the quest to strike a balance between cost and efficiency, the researchers at KAUST fused the relatively cheaper crystalline silicon with the more efficient, although less reliable perovskite and achieved a groundbreaking 33.2% efficiency level.

What KAUST’s Milestone Means for the Solar Industry

The bump in efficiency to more than 33% might not seem very huge, however, when this considerable improvement is reflected across millions of solar panels around the world on top of the years of sunshine, it could be a game-changer.

Efficiency electricity generation table | Credits – What Is Nuclear Power

KAUST’s achievement will require additional work and research to make its highly efficient solar cells even more commercially viable.

Efficiency is quantified using a power conversion efficiency (PCE) metric, in which a 100 percent rating signifies a complete transformation of sunlight into electricity without any losses. This record has been confirmed by the European Solar Test Installation (ESTI).

Stefaan De Wolf, a materials scientist a KAUST praised the milestone as “the highest PCE of any two-junction solar cell under non-concentrated light, attesting the tremendous promise of perovskite/silicon tandems to deliver ultra-high-performance photovoltaic modules, which is critical to rapidly achieve renewable energy goals towards combating climate change.”

The new tandem cell is able to achieve such a higher efficiency level due to the ability of the perovskite material to absorb most of the blue light. On the other hand, silicon in the solar cell absorbs most of the red light. This combination, according to the engineers, can capture most of the available sunlight which is then converted to electricity.

While the world celebrates this major milestone from KAUST, details on how the researchers achieved their results were not revealed.

A peer-reviewed paper is also missing on the technology, which means more work would be required to improve its lifespan and size – two of the biggest challenges of using perovskite to generate clean energy.

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