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30 April 2020

NREL drags academia and business into US Perovskite fight-back

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) said this week it plans to work with leading US solar companies and universities to commercialize perovskite photo voltaics. This represents an attempt to catch up a European leadership in Perovskite research.

Departments at the University of Washington, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Toledo will join together to form the US Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium (US-MAP).

US-MAP has the advantage of already lining up six US industry players including BlueDot Photonics, Energy Materials Corporation, First Solar, Hunt Perovskites Technologies, Swift Solar, and Tandem PV. First Solar with revenues of over $3 billion last year, certainly has the financial clout to go toe to toe with the Chinese solar manufacturers if it can target a significant breakthrough.

The founding organizers of the US-MAP consortium will explore funding from a variety of sources including industrial members and the federal government (now that depends who is the president and whether or not the US Chinese trade war continues). Leadership of the consortium will be provided at NREL by Joseph Berry and Jao van de Lagemaat, who will work with the key points of contact of the other founding organizers and industrial advisory board. Representatives from each of these companies, plus US startups, will form an industry advisory board to inform the efforts of the research institutions.

The organizers and members of US-MAP have already begun expanding this network to include the University of Colorado at Boulder and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Original perovskite was Calcium Titanate, but its crystal structure has now been found in many other similar element combinations, which mimic its properties – typically today we are using lead or tin halide, for the light harvesting layer.

This became a university curiosity around 2009, and some 10,000 researchers around the world have been in a race against time bring its power to bear commercially. Various Universities have pushed to bring the efficiency up  and the leaders perhaps have reached around 28%, when perovskite is used in tandem with Silicon, and this combination has been described as the “fastest-advancing solar technology to date” with the potential of even higher efficiencies at exceptionally low production costs, all on the verge of commercial production.

US universities are naturally among the leaders, but how can it overcome the leadership of the Chinese panel makers – they already have scale, a confirmed route to market, and a reputation, at least some of them, for reliability and good service, and cash flow.

The big issue with perovskite cells is making them stable for the length of time that a solar panel has to work, around 25 years. The only company we know of so far that has made this jump from the lab to production is UK player Oxford PV, which will come to market later this year/early next, with first panels.

Members of US-MAP say they will share research and development, validation, and pilot manufacturing, which will reduce development costs and technology risks for potential investors.

This seems to us an escalation of an IPR war with Europe, because in May last year Europe did much the same thing on a grander scale. It was called the European Perovskite Initiative (Epki) and 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.

Oxford University, which had Oxford PV spin out of it, will be able to offer a significant contribution to bringing all 38 Universities up to speed on Perovskite and a year’s head start is likely to see the lead remain in Europe, rather than the US. Given that Europe has little in the way of large scale semiconductor class manufacturing, we expect this to exert itself through joint ventures in China and other Asian manufacturing giants, including Taiwan.

Essentially this is the US waking up to the idea that it has lost a lead in a key “last chance” renewables marketplace – against China and now Europe.

Epki has been trying to harmonize work across Universities the way a commercial research arm of a business would, and create joint research programs.

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.

When we talked last year to Oxford PV CEO Frank Averdung, he told us his organization boasts 270 PV awarded or applied for patents, and says he has solved the stability issue some years ago and is working towards a solar cell production line of 125 MW by the end of 2020.

This first purchase was a turnkey 100 MW silicon heterojunction solar cell line. Next step will be the purchase of the Perovskite line which will be layered on top of the thin film silicon, using more of its latest £65 million in investment funds to kick off production. By the end of 2020 the second production line will drop in, and by mid-2021 the full production line will start, with silicon capturing one set of light frequencies and perovskite the others – making the theoretical maximum close to 43% of light landing on the panel.

It is Oxford PV that is the maverick organization which has triggered the rush to commercialize this sector, and the entire investment community will keep a watchful eye on the first six months of Oxford’s panel performance, so around the end of 2021, we promised financial fireworks. Companies will try to buy it, discredit it, put together huge consortia to fight it, and others to work with it.

Averdung talks about past promising technologies for PV – for instance Cerium-Based Oxides and Cadmium Telluride – “In simple junction formats these had a hard time going beyond 20% efficiency. We have reached 28% in the labs, and will reach the 27% in the first product. But we will climb beyond that at the rate of 1% more efficiency for each year that passes until we pass the mid-30s.” That promises another massive fall in the pricing for solar products and their Levelized Cost of Energy.