Solar technology: harnessing the power of the sun


Despite the current enthusiasm for fracking, those committed to a more sustainable approach are becoming more and more excited about the vast potential of a fourth generation of solar power. Dr Radu Sporea talks to Dr Ravi Silva, Director of the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey where 160 researchers work on electronics hardware and semi conductor solid state physics.

Despite increasing use of solar power, it still accounts for less that one per cent of the world’s energy supply.  But the potential of solar is enormous. Every single day the sun throws 165,000 terra watts of energy at the earth, but the total energy needs of the world’s 7bn people are just 10-15 terra watts per day. We need only to harness a fraction of the sun’s energy to meet all human needs. In a single hour the energy hitting the earth would give us enough power to meet our needs for a year.

So why is there an energy crisis? It is largely down to finance. Solar power is getting cheaper, but not cheap enough. We need a new technology that makes solar truly affordable.

ATI are world experts in carbon based electronics – and this is particularly significant for solar cell research. Solar energy is currently dominated by crystalline silicon materials  but ATI are pursuing a new generation of solar cells, which they call 4G cells, using nano scale inorganic materials mixed with organic materials – using the flexibility of organic materials which are ‘solution processable’ (ink jet printable) and mixing that with inorganic particles, such as carbon nano tubes, zinc oxide nano particles, grafine.  In other words, they are working on a new generation of particles that will give high efficiency (increasing the efficiency of solar cells by 25 per cent), cost less and, in theory, be solution processed to maintain the low cost base that is required for mass use of solar energy.

This is part of a pan-European project called Smartronics, a 12m Euro project led by Thessoloniki University and participated in by 18 other universitities , including Surrey’s ATI.  Each is looking at a different aspect of solar energy generation.  While Surrey researches printable materials, other partners are working on printing the solar cells via a sheet to sheet, or roll to roll process.  By the end of the 4 year programme they hope to have a prototype , printed rather like newspapers in big roll mills, using organic inks with inorganic particles.  And instead of paper, they will be using plastic sheets.

This is potentially a major breakthrough that could spur economic growth and prosperity.  It has the potential to offer affordable, reliable energy especially in places where it is currently not available.  It promises sustainable energy on a vast scale.


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