Black Phase

Materials Breakthrough Could Lead to Cheaper, Better Solar Panels

Is this the Holy Grail of solar panel technology?

Jan 22 by Victor Tangermann
Greg Stewart/ SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Image by Greg Stewart/ SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

To improve the efficiency of solar panels, scientists have become increasingly intrigued by perovskites, an evasive natural mineral with a unique crystalline structure.

Unfortunately, the mineral has proved to be uncooperative. At room temperature, three of its four possible atomic configurations are unstable and the material quickly reverts to its fourth phase, which renders it useless in the effort to convert sunlight to electricity.

Fortunately, a team of scientists at Stanford University and the Department of Energy may have just found a solution, as outlined in a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Their methodology is surprisingly simple: squeeze the fourth phase of perovskite inside a diamond anvil cell at high temperatures. The resulting atomic structure isn’t just efficient and usable for generating electricity from sunlight, they say, but is also stable at room temperature.

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“This is the first study to use pressure to control this stability, and it really opens up a lot of possibilities,” Yu Lin, researcher at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES), said in a statement.

“Now that we’ve found this optimal way to prepare the material, there’s potential for scaling it up for industrial production, and for using this same approach to manipulate other perovskite phases,” Lin added.

The “black” phase, the one successfully stabilized by the scientists,of perovskite has intrigued scientists for years since it has been found to be extremely efficient in converting sunlight to electricity, making it the Holy Grail for solar panel technology.

The phase, however, isn’t stable and previous attempts at stabilizing it have fallen short of replicating real-world conditions.

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But by squeezing perovskite in this state between two diamond tips, the equivalent of roughly 1,000 to 6,000 times atmospheric pressure, and heating it to 450 degrees Celsius, the researchers found a way to keep the material in its black phase even after pressure and temperatures dropped to normal levels.

One major challenge remains however: scaling up the technology to make it a feasible way to manufacture the next generation of solar panels on an industrial scale.

READ MORE: Squeezing a rock-star material could make it stable enough for solar cells [SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory]

More on solar panels: Scientists Are Working on Spray-On Solar Panels

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