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Nanoelectronics April 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

Record-Breaking Perovskite Solar Cells

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Several technologies are vying to dominate the emerging field of building-integrated photovoltaics. Recent record-breaking developments in perovskite photovoltaics represent a significant step forward for the commercialization of this promising technology.

Description

Dyesol—the Australian company that specializes in dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs)—recently announced that a research team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) now holds the new world record for perovskite-solar-cell (PSC) efficiency. PSCs are structures that contain a layer of nanoporous titania that collects electrons released by a light-absorbing layer of perovskite—thus generating an electric current. The Swiss group achieved a certified conversion efficiency of 21.02% with a PSC. As recently as 2009, the record stood at only 3.8%. Dyesol is a "pioneer licensee of EPFL," which means that, in addition to having its own intellectual property, it also has access to EPFL patents in the domain of PSCs and DSSCs.

In addition to announcing the developments at EPFL, Dyesol also recently announced the completion of a funding round that generated $8.1 million. Dyesol plans to use these funds to drive its commercialization schedule.

Implications

In the photovoltaics industry, small efficiency gains can have a marked effect on commercial viability. The progress in efficiency made by the researchers at EPFL represents a significant step forward for PSCs and is likely to accelerate the commercialization of this extremely promising technology.

PSCs use inexpensive materials, potentially reducing solar-panel cost to less than half that of standard photovoltaic systems. In addition, PSCs are hundreds of times thinner than silicon-based photovoltaics—leading to increased versatility. These advantages could lead to a variety of lucrative commercial opportunities.

Researchers—such as those at EPFL and Dyesol—are making impressive progress in this field. Indeed, PSCs are demonstrating the most rapid improvement in efficiency in the history of all photovoltaic technologies. However, several technical barriers have the potential to block the commercial success of PSCs. Perovskites are prone to degradation under exposure to oxygen and moisture, typically leading to devices' losing their ability to convert light to electricity over a period of several days. The key challenge currently facing researchers is how to improve this relatively poor material stability, thus enabling longer-term use of any potential products.

Dyesol's business model includes a strong academic element. The company essentially delegates the improvement of the efficiency of its products to its partners at EPFL—international experts in the field. This approach leaves Dyesol free to develop other aspects of the PSC project such as material stability and commercialization. Coupled with the strong financial backing that it is receiving, Dyesol appears to be in a strong position to capitalize on the advances it is making.

Impacts/Disruptions

Silicon-based systems currently account for approximately 95% of the entire photovoltaics market. This monopoly will slowly erode as advances occur in PSCs and other emerging solar-cell technologies (such as organic photovoltaics). Significant commercial opportunities exist for PSCs in building-integrated applications, and first-mover advantage will prove to be particularly important as this sector develops. However, PSC technology is unlikely to have a truly disruptive influence on the photovoltaics industry until progress in material stability matches the impressive advances in efficiency.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Photovoltaics, construction, energy, renewables

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Integrated Microsupercapacitors and Microchips

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Microchips and their power sources have always been separate entities. Recent research into integrating the two could have wide-reaching implications for the electronics industry.

Description

In February 2016, researchers from Drexel University and Paul Sabatier University published the results of their research into carbon-film microsupercapacitors in the scientific journal Science. This work demonstrates—for the first time—the ability to couple microchips and their power source directly. The scientists achieved this feat by depositing flexible nanoporous carbon films on the microchips, which then act as electrochemical supercapacitors. Supercapacitors complement alternative energy-storage technologies such as batteries in a variety of ways. Despite storing only moderate energy densities (approximately one-tenth the density of batteries), they are able to discharge high-power loads extremely quickly. Supercapacitors are also durable—the properties do not degrade over time in the same way that those of a battery would.

The scientists envisage that their microsupercapacitors would complement batteries rather than replace them completely—providing bursts of power across a variety of commercial applications. Functional demonstration devices outperform current microsupercapacitors and are stable over 10,000 charging cycles. Additionally, the fabrication techniques developed by the researchers are highly scalable and easy to integrate with the standard fabrication processes that currently find widespread use in the integrated-circuit industry.

Implications

This development represents a major breakthrough in integrated-circuit and in energy-storage technologies. For the first time, the power source can now be an integrated part of the microchip, rather than a cumbersome additional element. Assimilating energy-storage devices into the fabric of the microchip itself could prompt a significant shift within the semiconductor industry and has the potential to facilitate several substantial commercial opportunities. Notably, this development could enable manufacturers to fabricate smaller personal electronic devices and accelerate the commercialization of a number of next-generation applications.

Initially, commercial applications could include compact RFID tags and smart packaging. As the technology develops, it could also enable further advances in the field of "smart-dust" sensors or flexible and wearable electronics. For example, a key barrier to flexible applications is in coupling the electronics to power sources that are also flexible. However, despite the impressive nature of this recent academic development, these microsupercapcitors remain in their infancy and are likely to require significant levels of additional research before they are capable of having an impact on any commercial products or processes.

Impacts/Disruptions

Supercapacitors—or, indeed, microsuper-capacitors—will not replace batteries as a power source for portable electronic devices—they serve an entirely different purpose. However, they could certainly play an increasingly important role in this sphere, complementing the properties of batteries and giving device manufacturers increased flexibility in a number of aspects of device design and functionality. Integrating power source and microchip is likely to increase the range of objects that contain electronic functionality, accelerating the advance of the Internet of Things into all spheres of modern society.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Semiconductor, integrated circuit, portable electronics, portable power

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: