Solar panels

EU project explores new solar power technologies

A new type of material for harnessing solar power that is less expensive and more widely available than currently-used materials is being investigated by researchers at Northumbria University as part of a wider European project.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar energy cells based on kesterite – a copper-zinc-tin sulphide crystal structure – have the potential to satisfy the growing global energy demand, by increasing the capacity of energy produced from sunlight.

“More solar energy falls on the Earth’s surface in one hour than the entire global population uses in a year,” explained Research Fellow Dr Ian Forbes, who is leading Northumbria’s research team.

The €3.7m European Kestcell project is focused on training researchers to develop kesterite-based solar panel technology that would make solar-generated electricity more sustainable, efficient and competitive.

“The goal of the Kestcells project is to increase our understanding of these new kesterite materials, measure its efficiency and investigate production scales and whether it can be manufactured en mass,” said Dr Forbes.

The Kestcells consortium is comprised of key European universities, research institutions and companies whose remit is to develop the new kesterite-based PV technologies. Consortium members will do this through the creation of a training network of researchers who become experts in the development, design and assessment of these technologies.

“Research is needed to find the best performing thin film technology that is capable of being cheaply manufactured, bringing down the price of photovoltaic energy,” continued Dr Forbes.

Northumbria is the only UK university to be part of the Kestcells project. The university has a history of research expertise within the field of photovoltaics spanning some 20 years and involving industrial and commercial project consulting.

The University’s Northumberland Building was the first building in the UK to be fitted with a solar panel façade.

PV technologies are said to have the potential to become a reliable and future alternative to non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels. Many argue that they could replace the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“Sun energy is going to be here forever and it has the potential to cover all of the energy needs of the planet. We just need to develop the technology to transform the energy into electricity,” said Pepe Márquez, who is studying the effectiveness of kesterites for his PhD at Northumbria University.

“This new kesterite-based technology has great potential in terms of cost effectiveness for the photovoltaic market. We are working with incredibly thin technology – 50 times thinner than a single strand of hair – using microscopic quantities of copper, zinc and tin which makes the panels cheap and capable of being mass produced,” he explained

The interactive talk ‘A Brilliant Future: how sunlight will wave goodbye to our fossilised past’ is being hosted by Dr Forbes and his colleague Professor Nicola Pearsall. It is taking place today at Newcastle University as part of the British Science Festival.

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