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Has the sun set on second-gen solar?

In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC. The landmark report highlighted the need for businesses and governments to act immediately to reverse the human impact on climate change. Here, Matthew Stone, of organic polymer solar cell producer NextGen Nano, explains why this could mark a shift in photovoltaic (PV) technology.

In 1938, English inventor Guy Stewart Callendar first presented evidence supporting his theory that human activity, namely that of producing carbon emissions, was altering climate temperatures. Today, this theory has been repeatedly supported by scientific research. Yet, it has still taken 80 years, and the release of the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5ºC report every five years, for many people to begin discussing it with any sense of urgency.

While it theoretically seems absurd to some that it would take the human race so long to act, we must remember that our entire civilisation is built upon, and powered by. fossil fuels. Unsustainable, carbon-intensive processes still underpin much of modern human life. While interest in and adoption of low-carbon energy sources have grown significantly in recent years, fossil fuels still account for the majority of energy produced in Europe.

Change is happening, of course. In July, the UK’s electrical grid had not burned any coal for approximately 1,000 hours. As of mid-October 2018, MyGridGB noted that this number had reached more than 1,700 hours of coal-free power.

Solar sits among the biggest contributors of low-carbon energy across Europe, with several countries including the UK and Germany setting solar output highs during summer 2018. However, there are disadvantages to current PV technology, which are limiting adoption of solar in certain applications and industries.

Conventional PV panels, as we see them today, typically use silicon solar cells to capture sunlight and generate power. The problem is that the panels are brittle, cumbersome and expensive. This expense predominately comes from the large surface areas that are required to generate any meaningful power, which is due to the limited efficiency of silicon solar cells. If a business or individual wants to install solar panels, they require a substantial amount of real estate to accommodate them.

In addition to this, many second generation solar panels — which were initially developed to overcome the efficacy issues of the first generation — use pollutant or toxic materials.

These limitations have driven inventors and scientists to actively research third-generation solar technologies, which are developed to be cheaper, more versatile and more efficient at converting sunlight to usable energy. NextGen Nano’s Chief Technology Officer, Dr Franky So, has spent years developing such a solution in the form of the company’s PolyPower.

PolyPower blends earth-friendly biopolymers with organic polymer solar cells (PSCs) to provide a lightweight, flexible and potentially inexpensive approach to solar energy harvesting. Notably, the technology achieves these characteristics while still being robust — mitigating the problems associated with brittle panels.

Due to their high efficiency and flexibility, the cells have the potential to decentralise energy applications such as electric vehicles, drones and wearable devices. Effectively, these applications could feature PSCs as a design feature, allowing them to charge during outdoor usage, independent of a centralised power supply.

This provides a wealth of possibilities for product design engineers and environmental experts alike — from incorporating PSCs into the sails of yachts to kitting out electric vehicles with an energy-harvesting body.

Developments in third-generation solar technologies, such as PolyPower, are necessary for low-carbon energies to form a commercially-viable alternative to unsustainable fossil fuels. Whether it’s for businesses selling or consumers purchasing, actions and functionality speak louder and more enticingly than ideals alone. By removing the barriers to adoption of solar energy, we can begin initiating change, without another 80-year wait.


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