Asia Minute: Chinese Solar Research Pushing Boundaries

Aug 15, 2018

Credit David Goehring / Flickr

Construction is expected to begin Monday on a project installing more than 4,200 solar panels at the Honolulu Airport. It’s the latest solar project to move ahead in Hawai‘i. In China, scientists have moved ahead with a new development that could affect the next generation of solar panels.

Silicon is the heart of the traditional solar panel. It’s an element, number 14 on your periodic table — the substance that gave a name to California’s valley of technological development.

Silicon helps transform sunshine into solar power. In very broad terms, an electromagnetic particle or photon from the sunlight interacts with electrons from the silicon — producing electricity.

An alternate type of solar cell is known as organic photovoltaic — using carbon and plastic.

Up to now, silicon has been much more efficient — converting about 18 to 22-percent of sunlight passing through its cells into electricity. But Chinese researchers have now reached an efficiency rate of 17.3 percent using organic cells — nearly double the rate of just a few years ago.

In the world of solar panels, this is a very big deal.

The research was done by a team at Nankai University in Tianjin and the results published in the journal Science.

Credit Kristian Buus - 10 10 / Flickr

If efficiency rates are similar, organic cells would have certain advantages — they’re cheaper, and lighter than those using silicon. They’re also flexible; you could charge your cell phone with a mini solar panel, or use them on any wearable device — even on the roofs of cars.

Challenges remain, but the BBC quotes an Imperial College scientist who says the latest work is a “remarkable result.”