‘Inkjet’ solar panels set to reshape green energy

Solar boom:Physicist and businesswoman Olga Malinkiewicz with a printed solar panel in Wroclaw, Poland.AFPJANEK SKARZYNSKI

Solar boom:Physicist and businesswoman Olga Malinkiewicz with a printed solar panel in Wroclaw, Poland.AFPJANEK SKARZYNSKI  

Perovskites-coated cells are light, flexible and inexpensive

What if one day all buildings could be equipped with windows and facades that satisfy the structure’s every energy need, whether rain or shine?

That sustainability dream is today one step closer to becoming a reality thanks to Polish physicist and businesswoman Olga Malinkiewicz.

The 36-year-old has developed a novel inkjet processing method for perovskites — a new generation of cheaper solar cells — that makes it possible to produce solar panels under lower temperatures, thus sharply reducing costs.

“In our opinion, perovskite solar cells have the potential to address the world energy poverty,” said Mohammad Khaja Nazeeruddin, a professor at Switzerland’s Federal Institue of Technology Lausanne.

Solar panels coated with the mineral are light, flexible, efficient, inexpensive and come in varying hues and degrees of transparency.

They can easily be fixed to almost any surface — be it laptop, car, drone, spacecraft or building — to produce electricity, including in the shade or indoors.

Though the excitement is new, perovskite has been known to science since at least the 1830s, when it was first identified by German mineralogist Gustav Rose while prospecting in the Ural mountains and named after Russian mineralogist Lev Perovski.

‘Bull’s eye’

In the following decades, synthesising the atomic structure of perovskite became easier. But it was not until 2009 that Japanese researcher Tsutomu Miyasaka discovered that perovskites can be used to form photovoltaic solar cells.

Initially the process was complicated and required ultra high temperatures, so only materials that could withstand extreme heat — like glass — could be coated with perovskite cells.

In 2013, while still a Ph.D student at the University of Valencia in Spain, Ms. Malinkiewicz figured out a way to coat flexible foil with perovskites using an evaporation method.

Later, she developed an inkjet printing procedure that lowered production costs enough to make mass production economically feasible. “That was a bull’s eye. Now high temperatures are no longer required to coat things with a photovoltaic layer,” she said.

Her discovery earned her an article in the journal Nature and media attention, as well as the Photonics21 Student Innovation award in a competition organised by the European Commission.

She went on to cofound the company Saule Technologies — named after the Baltic goddess of the sun — along with two Polish businessmen.

The company is building an industrial-scale production site.

“This will be the world’s first production line using this technology. Its capacity will reach 40,000 square metres of panels by the end of the year and 1,80,000 square metres the following year,” Ms. Malinkiewicz said.

Self-sufficient buildings

The Swedish construction group Skanska is testing the cutting-edge panels on the facade of one of its buildings in Warsaw. It also inked a licencing partnership with Saule for exclusive right to incorporate the technology in its projects in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

“More or less transparent, the panels also respond to design requirements. Thanks to their flexibility and varying tints, there’s no need to add any extra architectural elements,” said Adam Targowski, sustainability manager at Skanska.

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