Back in 2009, a research team from the University of Tokyo led by Professor Tsutomu Miyasaka found that a substance called perovskite had the potential to generate solar power. However, at the time it only had a very weak power conversion efficiency (PCE) of about four percent and would break down in just a few minutes.

Because of these sizable flaws, not could practical use could be made of perovskite and the discovery lay dormant for a few years. Then, after a Korean team managed to double the PCE in 2011, research into the material was reignited. Now as scientists around the world continue to work on it, the PCE has become well above 20 percent and comparable with the standard silicon-based solar panels that we see today.

With perovskite being drastically cheaper to produce, more flexible to use, and now as efficient as regular solar panels, could we be on the verge of a solar energy revolution?

■ What is perovskite?

Perovskite is not a new material at all. It was discovered back in 1839 in Russia by German mineralogist Gustav Rose and was named after his Russian colleague Lev Perovski, for some reason.

▼ Come to think of it, there is a bit of a resemblance

This perovskite was a compound of calcium and titanium, but nowadays the name perovskite applies to any compound which has the same crystal structure. In the case of producing solar energy the perovskite is generally made up of organic and inorganic substances. For example methylammonium lead trihalide is a popular compound…perhaps because of its catchy name.

Solar panels that you see now are produced with silicon. Silicon is easy enough to find which keeps the cost reasonable, but it still ends up skyrocketing once manufacturing comes into play which involves vacuums and extremely high temperatures. Synthesizing perovskite, however, only requires the kind of temperatures you can achieve in your kitchen.

■ The Good

While perovskite is much cheaper to produce than current solar power generating materials, there are yet more benefits to it. Since it is produced chemically it can be made into a liquid substance which can then be painted onto a surface and left to dry.

For example, if you were driving an electric car, the car’s entire body could act as a charger. And don’t let the dealer try to overcharge you for that feature because you know perovskite is cheap. Japanese tech website Futurus says that one square meter (11 square feet) painted with power-producing perovskite would run you about 150 yen (US$1.25).

Dr. Sonia Ruiz Raga at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology mentions more benefits in the video, but be forewarned: it’s a long one, complete with mood-establishing shots of slow-motion walking.

In the video Dr. Raga points out that this new material can go in parts of the house where current solar panels cannot. For example, traditional homeowners with ornamental roofs can retain that style and still produce power. Because the substance is translucent it could also be used on windows. In theory, you could even paint a PC with it, sit it in a sunny corner of the house, and have it run solely on its own generated power.

■ The bad and the ugly

One of the biggest challenges of making perovskite practical and profitable is in the efficiency (the ratio of “power out” over “power in”). Although, reports of over 20 percent have been achieved, they were done so in controlled lab conditions. Chances are, once you start painting every nook and cranny of your house in mass-produced perovskite results may vary.

Secondly, remember when I said Prof. Miyasaka’s perovskite solar cell back in 2009 only lasted a few minutes? Well, improvements have been made in this area so that now according to Dr. Raga a coat of perovskite paint would last a week or so. Considering how cheap it is, that might not be a deal-breaker. However, having to slap on a coat of power-producing paint every fortnight doesn’t really seem like the wave of the future either.

Depending on your attitude, these aren’t flaws as much as just challenges that need to be overcome. Dr. Raga predicts that is the global community of researchers put enough effort into it, perovskite will be a force to be reckoned with in about five years’ time. Meanwhile, Futurus quotes Prof. Miyasaka as saying that a prototype perovskite system for practical use will be completed this year.

It’s still a way away, but the day may come where by tinting our windows with perovskite we can not only charge our cars but keep the inside upholstery from becoming a brazier on summer days. Now, that’s a future I can get behind!

Source: Futurus via Itai News (Japanese)
Video: YouTube – Purasukonoie
Images: Wikipedia – Andrew SilverFriedrich Jentzen, Sevhab