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Solar innovation might be more disruptive by nature
Solar energy has been one of the most intriguing and challenging to domesticate since the dawn of time, as innovations on its path remind us every so often. Browsing among the many subjects attracting attention on the solar field, like those in this issue, gives us examples of a double challenge facing solar energy innovation.
Harnessing the power of the sun doesn’t simply rely on capturing and transforming a mecanical power, like those of the wind and rivers.
It has long been known how to generate energy using the mechanical force of wind or rivers. Since the invention of windmills or watermills, their energy efficiency has of course been improved, moving from mechanical energy to electrical energy generation, easily exploitable for a variety of uses away from the mill. But technology is still based on the same principle: produce energy from a natural mechanical power.
The power of the sun is more amazing. Of course people have known its burning power for ages, but transforming it in a convenient energy requires much more intelligence creativity and adaptedness. The first solar energy challenge is to find ways to capture and transform it into energy with a very open mind, as it’s not purely “mechanical”, but relies on a more complex process to transorm light and/or heat into energy. This intermediate path from the original energy source allows for a wide array or processes and research directions, as the many solar power inventions prove. Since the photovoltaic effect has been discovered by Edmond Becquerel in France in 1839, inventors have mutiplied ideas and ways to use sun power, starting from Augustin Mouchot’s first patents in France in the 1860s, to the first “gold-coated selenium” solar cells patented by Charles Fritts in New York back in 1883.
The recent effervescence over perovskites solar pannels echoes a long tradition of innovation leaps in sunpower harvesting technologies. Perovskites is a calcium titanate-based mineral first found in the Ural Mountains by a German scientist, Gustav Rose, in 1839 and named after the Russian mineralogist Perovski. But it’s first use in solar panels only appeared in reesearch from the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology, in 1999. The Perovskite solar pannel technology blossomed from almost inexisting 20 years ago, to very promising today, and eventually mainstream in the future. World market for Perovskites based solar pannels is expected to grow more than 30% annually in this decade, or ten fold in nine years, according to industry sources. Its market size would grow from $450m in 2020 to 3.8bn by 2028, according to to recent ReportsAndData forecast. Still dwarfed by traditional silicon solar panels, as the world solar panels market was estimated at €40bn in 2020.
But execution is another huge challenge facing solar energy, often trickier than for other renewables, because technologies to harness sun energy have to be very inventive, compared to harnessing mechanical energies of the wind and rivers. It doesn’t only take to make a breakthrough scientific discovery of new materials combination properties, but one has to make them feasible, from lab to factory. Saule Technology’s opening of the world’s first factory of perovskite solar cells late May, with 40,000 m2/year capacity, illustrates this kind of challenges. But the world will need greater production scale, to reach the 1 million m2/year production target needed to match future needs. Scientists and engineers will need to tackle environmental challenges surrounding Perovskites solar cells production, like the recent British discovery of new green solvents to lower the cost and dammages of chemical solvants used in Perovskites panels production.
A third unique challenge of solar power is to multiply its uses in as many situations as possible, as sun light is almost everywhere on earth at predictable hours, even if its intensity can vary. As opposed to wind, and obviously rivers, sunlight is available everywhere, everyday. News in this issue illustrate three simple ways, although not easy ones, to mix sunlight based power with other technologies or goals. Sono Motors helps reduce cars external energy consumption, by producing their own solar energy by incorporating solar cells in their bodywork. Saule Technoly instals its solar films on Acciona’s wind turbines to improve the energy yield of their hundred meters masts. And Chinese scientists even invent new solar powered processes for water desalination, adressing another UN SDG: clean water. The hopes are infinite, and the last frontier even more ambitious, as the power of the sun remains the mother of our lives’ energy. 2.4 billion years ago, the capacity of living organisms to draw energy from the sun sparked biological life that led to ours. It was the still unsolved mystery of photosynthesis: using sunlight to break water molecules, produce energy and reject a waste called oxygen. Solar energy innovation could get even more disruptive, before it gets anything close to its natural original genius.