Europe binds 38 R&D teams to coordinated research on Perovskite

Europe has basically given up trying to catch up with China on crystalline silicon solar technology and much research carried out at universities in Europe is based on undermining crystalline silicon technology with Perovskite thin film approaches, which threaten to be far cheaper than Silicon in the long run.

So it came as little surprise when last week a European Perovskite Initiative (Epki) was launched by a group of academics – led by Solliance (itself a 2010 joint venture between Dutch and Belgian interests) and UK consulting firm Greensquare. However the number of cooperating research institutes has gone up an order of magnitude, all agreeing to share research on Perovskite breakthroughs and to coordinate future work.

This includes a total of 38 research groups from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Austria, Sweden and Poland, with such worthy names as Delft University, Oxford, the CEA in France and the German Fraunhofer Institute. Not all of them are Universities, and the list includes some R&D departments of large renewable players, like EDF, which may provide an early exploitation platform for any breakthrough.

Perovskite based solar cells are the most promising technology to hit solar in the past 10 years, in terms of what they have achieved in the lab with efficiencies close to Crystalline Silicon, which at scale should be far cheaper to manufacture. The problem now is to provide a last push which begins to build a launch pad for such technology into finished manufactured products, with a route to market and their own eco-system.

Epki says that Perovskite has achieved lab efficiencies of 24.2% in single-junction architecture and could provide 28% when build in tandem with crystalline silicon. From here to market acceptance could take just a few years, but it is more likely to take five – and it depends upon which major industrials come along for the ride.

One of the problems is how academic research tends to be organized, with academics needing to make progress in a single area, over the 3 or 4 years duration of typical research funding or conducting a PhD.

Epki will now try to harmonize work the way a commercial research arm of a business would, and create joint research programs. One of its first steps will be to write a White paper on the underlying technology by this June or mid-July. It seems that paper will be the “brochure” of Epki to make it apparent to industrial partners what the technology can do.

Rethink Energy has covered a handful of recent breakthroughs including with one University trying to use solar to turn water into hydrogen fuel on the fly, another which created a new flexible physical architecture for solar based on a surface simply embossed with ‘micro-grooves’ which allow it to absorb more light; and a multi-layer cell that pushed the technology close to maximum feasible efficiency.

We raised the question that given all of this research was out there, just how would it come to market. Epki may well be the first essential step.

Perovskite is often built using either lead or tin halide as the light-harvesting active layer and it can be painted on to most surfaces. There have been ideas like roads, roofs and the sides of buildings which have perovskite patterns painted on them, which then simply produce energy. The biggest issue is that the crystalline silicon solar process has had tons of money spent perfecting and improving it, and there are many companies which have used it to make a lot of money. When you reinvest a percentage of revenues into the minutiae of the process detail, and especially when that revenue is very large, then the results are as close as you can get to perfect – whereas perovskite is nowhere near that limit as yet.

When a new technology comes along academics try to push it ahead, and academic or VC funding has to pick the perfect moment when it can find initially a niche and then later the mainstream to exploit the technology, and begin to get supported by real revenues. This kind of pre-industrialized research cooperation may provide the breakthroughs which are needed for perovksite.

Interesting that this particular arrangement includes the UK, a European partner which has voted to leave the EU, but which has failed to gain political agreement on how this should be done.

The ideas behind Epki are to agree a common vision, begun with this white paper; initiate further coordinated research and facilitate joint-research programs. Much of the current research could be funded by the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) which aims to accelerate the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies.