Researchers from The University of Manchester are using polystyrene particles to make the next generation of solar cells. The research shows how to use insulating polystyrene microgel particles to cut the cost and improve the stability of Perovskite Solar Cells (PSCs).
The ongoing Big Green Bang and the focus on renewable energy make this field of research unstoppable. Solar energy has been a particularly hot topic, with Tesla Solar Roof being one of the latest developments.
PSCs are a new kind of solar panel and, according to the World Economic Forum, they are one of the best ten emerging technologies. This is because they have unprecedented improvements in rates of power conversion and efficiency, potentially enabling relative lower costs per watt.
Solar panels are now common in many houses and buildings across the UK. Nevertheless, their high production costs hamper their ubiquitous use.
The conventional photovoltaic (PV) panels incorporate silicon to harvest light, which is then converted into energy. However, silicon is an expensive, energy-intensive material to produce. Recent research has turned to perovskite, a cheaper light harvesting layer.
PSC power conversion efficiency is now approaching parity with established solar PV technology efficiencies that took decades to reach. In this way, PSCs are now becoming more commercially attractive. They can accomplish considerably higher efficiencies in a substantially shorter time and have a moderately low production costs.
Everything sounds great so far but one question remains. Is polystyrene such a good material? We live in a world where non-renewables feedstocks have been quickly running low. Consequently, there is a growing urge to move towards more sustainable materials.
Polystyrene is, put simply, a petroleum-based plastic. It has a scale of production of several million tonnes per year, being one of the most widely used plastics. Polystyrene is generally non-biodegradable, meaning that will accumulate in the environment.
The whole process for producing polystyrene microgel cells, and subsequent perovskite film fabrication, uses expensive metals, is energetically demanding, and extremely laborious.
Despite all the praises regarding its price, is that all that truly matters? Besides considering getting there we should also focus on how we are getting there. Do the perks of producing solar cells and panels for efficiently harvesting sun light, make up for making these materials from non-renewable feedstocks?