Article last updated on: Feb 16, 2019

What are perovskite?

Perovskites are a class of materials that share a similar structure, which display a myriad of exciting properties like superconductivity, magnetoresistance and more. These easily synthesized materials are considered the future of solar cells, as their distinctive structure makes them perfect for enabling low-cost, efficient photovoltaics. They are also predicted to play a role in next-gen electric vehicle batteries, sensors, lasers and much more.

How does the PV market look today?

In general, Photovoltaic (PV) technologies can be viewed as divided into two main categories: wafer-based PV (also called 1st generation PVs) and thin-film cell PVs. Traditional crystalline silicon (c-Si) cells (both single crystalline silicon and multi-crystalline silicon) and gallium arsenide (GaAs) cells belong to the wafer-based PVs, with c-Si cells dominating the current PV market (about 90% market share) and GaAs exhibiting the highest efficiency.

Perovskite solar cell market image

Thin-film cells normally absorb light more efficiently than silicon, allowing the use of extremely thin films. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology has been successfully commercialized, with more than 20% cell efficiency and 17.5% module efficiency record and such cells currently hold about 5% of the total market. Other commercial thin-film technologies include hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) and copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) cells, taking approximately 2% market share each today. Copper zinc tin sulphide technology has been under R&D for years and will probably require some time until actual commercialization.

What is a perovskite solar cell?

An emerging thin-film PV class is being formed, also called 3rd generation PVs, which refers to PVs using technologies that have the potential to overcome current efficiency and performance limits or are based on novel materials. This 3rd generation of PVs includes DSSC, organic photovoltaic (OPV), quantum dot (QD) PV and perovskite PV.

A perovskite solar cell is a type of solar cell which includes a perovskite structured compound, most commonly a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin halide-based material, as the light-harvesting active layer. Perovskite materials such as methylammonium lead halides are cheap to produce and relatively simple to manufacture. Perovskites possess intrinsic properties like broad absorption spectrum, fast charge separation, long transport distance of electrons and holes, long carrier separation lifetime, and more, that make them very promising materials for solid-state solar cells.

Perovskite solar cell image

Perovskite solar cells are, without a doubt, the rising star in the field of photovoltaics. They are causing excitement within the solar power industry with their ability to absorb light across almost all visible wavelengths, exceptional power conversion efficiencies already exceeding 20% in the lab, and relative ease of fabrication. Perovskite solar cells still face several challenge, but much work is put into facing them and some companies, are already talking about commercializing them in the near future.

What are the advantages of Perovskite solar cells?

Put simply, perovskite solar cells aim to increase the efficiency and lower the cost of solar energy. Perovskite PVs indeed hold promise for high efficiencies, as well as low potential material & reduced processing costs. A big advantage perovskite PVs have over conventional solar technology is that they can react to various different wavelengths of light, which lets them convert more of the sunlight that reaches them into electricity.

Moreover, they offer flexibility, semi-transparency, tailored form factors, light-weight and more. Naturally, electronics designers and researchers are certain that such characteristics will open up many more applications for solar cells.

What is holding perovskite PVs back?

Despite its great potential, perovskite solar cell technology is still in the early stages of commercialization compared with other mature solar technologies as there are a number of concerns remaining.

One problem is their overall cost (for several reasons, mainly since currently the most common electrode material in perovskite solar cells is gold), and another is that cheaper perovskite solar cells have a short lifespan. Perovskite PVs also deteriorate rapidly in the presence of moisture and the decay products attack metal electrodes. Heavy encapsulation to protect perovskite can add to the cell cost and weight. Scaling up is another issue - reported high efficiency ratings have been achieved using small cells, which is great for lab testing, but too small to be used in an actual solar panel.

A major issue is toxicity - a substance called PbI is one of the breakdown products of perovskite. This is known to be toxic and there are concerns that it may be carcinogenic (although this is still an unproven point). Also, many perovskite cells use lead, a massive pollutant. Researchers are constantly seeking substitutions, and have already made working cells using tin instead. (with efficiency at only 6%, but improvements will surely follow).

What’s next?

While major challenges indeed exist, perovskite solar cells are still touted as the PV technology of the future, and much development work and research are put into making this a reality. Scientists and companies are working towards increasing efficiency and stability, prolonging lifetime and replacing toxic materials with safer ones. Researchers are also looking at the benefits of combining perovskites with other technologies, like silicon for example, to create what is referred to as “tandem cells”.

Commercial activity in the field of perovskite PV

In September 2015, Australia-based organic PV and perovskite solar cell (PSC) developer Dyesol declared a major breakthrough in perovskite stability for solar applications. Dyesol claims to have made a significant breakthrough on small perovskite solar cells, with “meaningful numbers” of 10% efficient strip cells exhibiting less than 10% relative degradation when exposed to continuous light soaking for over 1000 hours. Dyesol was also awarded a $0.5 million grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to commercialize an innovative, very high efficiency perovskite solar cell.

Also in 2015, Saule Technologies signed an investment deal with Hideo Sawada, a Japanese investment company. Saule aims to combine perovskite solar cells with other currently available products, and this investment agreement came only a year after the company was launched.

The latest perovskite solar news:

UK researchers achieve record PSC stability using waterproof graphite-based coating

Researchers at the University of Bath have applied a waterproof graphite-based coating to a perovskite cell intended to power the production of hydrogen underwater. The cell reportedly worked underwater longer than expected, and may open the door to a cheap and sustainable way of making hydrogen fuel from water using sunlight.

Researchers used graphite film to coat perovskite solar cells and waterproof them image

“The coated cells worked underwater for 30 hours – ten hours longer than the previous record,” the scientists wrote, adding the glue sandwiching the coat to the cells began to fail after 30 hours. They believe stronger glue could help the cell stabilize for longer. “We achieve a record stability of 30h in aqueous electrolyte under constant simulated solar illumination, with currents above 2 mA cm−2 (milliamperes per cm−2) at 1.23 VRHE,” they added.

Interview with Greatcell Solar Materials' GM Yanek Hebting

In December 2018, Greatcell Solar declared bankruptcy, a sad ending to a once promising perovskite venture. However, prior to this bankruptcy (in September 2018), the Production Division of Greatcell Solar was sold off, in a new business called Greatcell Solar Materials (GSM).

GSM's materials image

GSM manufactures and supplies its products like perovskite precursors, silver inks, various dopants and more to the scientific community. The company's general manager, Dr. Yanek Hebting, kindly agreed to answer some of our questions regarding GSM's business and technology.

HZB team opens the door to stable PSCs based on inorganic perovskite thin films

A team at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) has succeeded in producing inorganic perovskite thin films at moderate temperatures using co-evaporation – rendering the process of post-tempering at high temperatures unnecessary it much easier to produce thin-film solar cells.

HZB team opens the door to stable PSCs based on inorganic perovskite thin films imageBy co-evaporation of cesium iodide and lead iodide thin layers of CsPbI3 can be produced even at moderate temperatures. An excess of cesium leads to stable perovskite phases. image: HZB

Researchers all over the world are working intensively on the development of perovskite solar cells. The focus is mainly on ones made from metal-organic hybrid perovskites, whose crystal structure is composed of inorganic elements such as lead and iodine as well as an organic molecule. Completely inorganic perovskite semiconductors such as CsPbI3 have the same crystalline structure as hybrid perovskites, but contain an alkali metal such as caesium instead of an organic molecule. This makes them much more stable than hybrid perovskites, but usually requires an extra production step at very high temperature – several hundred degrees Celsius.

Caffeine can make perovskite solar cells more stable under heat

Researchers at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA have discovered that caffeine improves the thermal stability of perovskite solar cells.

“Solar cells need high thermal stability since they are constantly exposed to sunlight, which warms up the devices,” said Yang, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. “While perovskites are an attractive option for solar cells, the materials degrade and become less stable over time. We need them to last 20 to 30 years like traditional solar cells.”

NREL team boost PSC efficiency using a new chemical formula

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report the creation of an efficient tandem perovskite solar cell, using a new chemical formula which also improved the structural and optoelectronic properties of the solar cell.

Most of the research efforts in the field of PSCs have focused on lead-based perovskites, which have a wide bandgap. High efficiency, low bandgap perovskites would enable the fabrication of very high efficiency all-perovskite tandem solar cells where each layer absorbs only a part of the solar spectrum and is optimally configured to convert this light into electrical energy. However, low bandgap perovskites have long suffered from large energy losses and instability limiting their use in tandems.