January 27, 2015 / 3:58 PM / 3 years ago

New-generation solar panels far cheaper, more efficient: scientists

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new generation of solar panels made from a mineral called perovskite has the potential to convert solar energy into household electricity more cheaply than ever before, according to a study from Briain's Exeter University.

Super-thin, custom-colored panels attached to a building's windows may become a "holy grail" for India and African countries, Senthilarasu Sundaram, one of the authors of the study, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In those countries these types of material will be like a holy grail: they can both shade windows ... and at the same time produce electricity," he said.

With a thickness measured in billionths of a meter, solar panels made of perovskite will be more than 40 percent cheaper and 50 percent more efficient than those commercially produced today, Sundaram said.

Unlike other solar panels, those made of perovskite can absorb most of the solar spectrum and work in various atmospheric conditions, rather than only in direct sunlight.

"This type of material for solar cells works in diffused conditions much, much better than the other types of solar cells," said Sundaram. "It won't be 100 percent, but it will be much more than what we have now."

Researchers have already tested the material in the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Current commercial products used to generate solar power, such as silicon or thin-film based technologies, are expensive because they are processed using vacuum-based techniques, the Exeter study said.

The production process for perovskite panels is very straightforward, but researchers still have to test the material under different conditions to better understand its properties, before companies embark on industrial-scale production, it said.

The photovoltaic (PV) energy market has been growing because of government targets for renewable energy production and CO2 emission controls, and the International Energy Agency has said that solar energy could be the world's biggest source of electricity by 2050.

Sundaram said perovskite could also be used to power mobile gadgets like laptops and tablets.

First found in 1839 in the Ural Mountains, perovskite is named after Russian mineralogist Lev Perovski.

Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce

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