PHILADELPHIA — Solar panels generate electricity by absorbing sunlight, but that is only half the battle. Once electrons in the panel are energized, they must be channeled in the same direction — a process that typically requires a panel made with layers of two kinds of material.
Not in the future, if a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University can help it.
In a new study published online by the journal Nature, the scientists reported they had created a new class of ceramic material that could accomplish both tasks cheaply and efficiently.
So far the group has created just tablet-size bits of the new ceramic, but members predict it can be used to make panels that are better at harvesting energy and less expensive than the silicon-based models that dominate the market.
The authors say their new ceramic also would have an edge over “thin-film” solar panels, which tend to contain materials that are rare, toxic, or both. The new material contains potassium, niobium, barium, and nickel, which are relatively abundant and environmentally benign.
So is silicon, but it requires lots of processing and manufacturing to be used in solar panels. The authors say their combination of materials will be cheaper in the long run.
“We’ve opened up a new category of ways of making a solar cell,” said Penn chemistry Professor Andrew M. Rappe, who supervised modeling and computation for the project.
Solar power remains a small player on the nation’s energy scene, accounting for just a quarter of 1 percent of energy consumed in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The actual numbers are higher, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, which says the government does not have complete data on rooftop panel installation.
But by any measure, solar power generation has been climbing steadily, driven in part by government incentives. And for scientists, the sun remains a tantalizing source of untapped power.