With energy prices set to soar and subsidies for clean energy tumbling, driving down the cost of the best sustainable technology has become essential for widespread adoption.
It is against this backdrop that Professor Henry Snaith has been awarded the Outstanding Young Investigator Award for his work generating ever cheaper and more efficient solar energy.
Professor Snaith, 36, from Abingdon, plans to revolutionise the solar industry with an ultra-thin layer of solar cells that can be printed onto glass.
Speaking about the award, Professor Snaith said: “It is a great honour to receive the award and recognition such as this really helps to raise the profile of the exciting developments we are making in solar technology, which we believe will result in a transformational change across the world.”
Professor Snaith is chief scientific officer at Oxford PV, a spin-out from Oxford University, and has exclusively licensed solar technology that he and his team are developing out of their Begbroke Science Park premises.
He co-founded the company in 2010 with chief executive Kevin Arthur and the team has now grown to 24.
PV, meaning Photovoltaic, is the process of converting solar radiation into electrical power, now the third most important renewable energy source in terms of global usage, after hydro and wind power.
Chief technology officer Dr Chris Case said: “Everything you can generate through renewable resources offsets the carbon footprint, which is important to regulators and also to ordinary people.”
Professor Snaith has licensed and is developing cells made from ‘perovskites’, which use abundant, environmentally friendly materials that are cost-effective to produce. Conventional solar panels are made from crystalline silicon originating from abundantly available sand, but use more energy to make and are therefore more expensive.
Dr Case explained: “A huge amount of electrical and thermal energy goes into the production of silicon solar panels.”
They achieve around 18-20 per cent efficiency, which means 20 per cent of the light falling on the cells is converted into electricity.
“The perovskite cells use much less energy to produce,” Dr Case added.
In just four years the perovskite cells have improved from five per cent to 17 per cent efficiency. The technology behind silicon solar panels has taken decades to reach this level.
Professor Snaith’s perovskite cells are made from a crystal structure only one or two thousandths of a millimetre thick and can be printed onto glass to produce a transparent, coloured coating.
Now, Oxford PV aims to create larger modules that meet international standards and can be applied as a thin film to building facades. This would cost much less than the equivalent power generated through conventional silicon panels. It is estimated installation of the perovskite technology will pay for itself within ten years.
Mr Arthur worked on a business plan for Professor Snaith’s inventions for 11 months after founding the company, but funding was initially hard to find.
Then, Mr Arthur heard about a competition held by the Technology Strategy Board. There was one problem: the deadline for submissions was at noon the next day. Mr Arthur swiftly perfected a two-minute pitch and, much to their delight, won the £100,000 prize.
The pair started the licensing process for patents and hit the road pitching to investors, soon receiving an extra £700,000.
Under the leadership of Mr Arthur, Oxford PV is expanding rapidly and now has £7m of equity and grant funding.
The Outstanding Young Investigator Award from the Materials Research society is not the first time Professor Snaith’s work has been recognized.
In 2012, he was awarded the Institute of Physics’ Patterson Medal and in 2013 Nature magazine included him in its prestigious annual list of people who have made a difference to science — he was the only UK scientist to be included.
However, safety is just as important to the team as energy efficiency. One part of the materials widely used to make peroskvites is lead. A drawback to using lead is that it is toxic, which can make disposing of it difficult.
Oxford PV published research at the beginning of May showing that a lead-free perovskite made using tin has achieved around six per cent efficiency. Although this is lower than lead-based perovskites, it is the level of efficiency they were showing three years ago.
Professor Snaith and the team are hopeful the efficiency can grow at a similar rate.
Dr Case said: “In the future Oxford PV will be endeavouring to use lead-free perovskites and we see no reason why it won’t perform as well or even better.”
Oxford PV is now expecting its first revenues by 2016 and the first office blocks that generate electricity from solar-power generating windows could follow the next year.
This is a window of opportunity for a solar energy revolution.          ib