Pete Hughes meets a scientist who believes photovoltaics could provide all our energy

By the time Hinkley Point is built, the cost of photovoltaics will mean you won’t even want to turn it on. Soon it won’t make any sense to install any power generation other than solar PV.”

If Henry Snaith sounds confident in his own creation, he has reason to be; in September he was tipped as a future winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Statisticians at Clarivate Analytics named him in their annual list of scientists around the world who are statistically most likely to win a Nobel Prize in the near future.

The list is calculated largely on the number of times a scientist’s research has been quoted by other scientists in the past year.

To put it simply, right now Oxford University physics professor Henry Snaith is one of the hottest topics in the energy world.

His reaction? “It feels pretty good, but I’m trying not to get too excited,” he says.

The reason for his red-hot popularity can be summed up in one word, and you probably won’t even be able to pronounce it: perovskites.

These strange crystals were first discovered in Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1839, but their fantastical properties went unrealised for nearly 200 years.

Computer scientists at IBM found about 20 years ago that they had potential use as semiconductors and transistors, but it was not until Prof Snaith started looking into their unique properties that he discovered they held a secret which could potentially put the entire fossil fuel industry out of business.

Born and raised in Norfolk, the 39-year-old, who now lives in Abingdon with his wife and their three children, always had a passion for the environment.

Prof Snaith recalls: “As a child I was very aware of global warming, the impact we’ve had and the problems of intensive farming and deforestation. It’s always been my agenda and I’ve always been driven by that.”

After school, he did a bachelor’s degree in physics at Bristol then a PhD in photovoltaics at Cambridge.

He says: “After my undergraduate studies I wanted to work on something useful for society, and I thought energy was a big issue we needed to solve.”

At that time, he says, the options for a physicist researching energy were nuclear fusion, wind energy or solar power. “Fusion – with all respect to the team at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy – seemed like an impossible dream; wind seemed more like engineering – so I went into solar,” he explains.

After getting his doctorate and coming to Oxford, he started working in the traditional solar panel materials – plastic and printable semi-conductors. “At that point,” he says, “the cost of solar energy was 20 times that of other energy. My main aim was making solar energy less expensive.”

Then in 2009, he spotted a paper by Japanese scientist Tsutomu Miyasaka, who had tried integrating crystals called perovskites into a solar cell as a dye.

Intrigued, he sent one of his own students, Michael Lec, to Japan to investigate further, and he made some exciting discoveries.

He says: “Michael came back from that trip and together we worked out how to use these materials as a semiconductor and found they were ludicrously efficient.”

Since then, Prof Snaith and his team have taken the efficiency of their metal halide perovskite panels from three per cent to 20 per cent.

Over the same period, the popularity of solar panels has soared, bringing the basic production costs tumbling down so that in many places generating electricity from solar is now half the cost of generating it from coal.

The potential rewards for combing that new mass-production ability with the unanticipated efficiency of perovskite technology is huge.

Realising the possibilities, Dr Snaith founded a company – Oxford Photovoltaics – to take the technology further.

The firm now employs 35 people at its offices at Begbroke Science Park and has a solar panel development facility in Brandenburg, Germany.

And, just to prove that solar really does have the potential to trounce traditional dinosaur fuels, the firm already has significant investment from Norwegian oil companies.

Prof Snaith enthuses: “We’re talking about free energy – or at least at a much lower cost – and much greater accessibility to power.

“There are still about a billion people in hot, sunny countries without readily available power or water, and about a fraction of one per cent of the world’s land mass is required for PV to provide all our electricity.

“I absolutely believe that one day we’ll be able to get all our electricity from solar.”

As a warning to oil and coal giants, he adds: “The current industry needs to change with the times otherwise they’ve got zero future value.”

The technology is there; the demand is certainly there.

But there is still one major hurdle to jump: where do you store all this electricity?

The amount of PV power produced across the world right now is about 100GW a year; the biggest battery in the world can store 1GW. However, in order to compete with oil and coal, which can be accessed all the time, the amount of storage space is the key issue for solar power because the sun is not always shining. Prof Snaith explains: “Battery storage just hasn’t gone through those economies of scales yet.

“The technologies we are developing will make it inevitable that we’ll be able to get electricity from solar cheaper than any other source, but these panels will still only produce power when the sun is shining.”

Among the potential storage methods he suggests is using solar panel electricity to pump water up a hill and store it there as ‘gravitational potential energy’; when you need the electricity on a rainy day you simply release the water through a traditional dam.

However, a much more exciting potential is emerging right now – the solid-state battery. Just this month, vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson announced he was planning to jump on the electric car bandwagon and build his own with a solid-state battery.

That news was followed just weeks later with an announcement that the UK Government is investing £65m into a new research institute here in Oxfordshire, at Harwell Campus, dedicated to researching energy storage and battery technology.

If energy storage is the main hurdle for solar power, the bar is rapidly being lowered by an international, electric hurdle-lowering machine.

Prof Snaith is confident, saying: “I personally think battery technology is advancing enough that we’ll be able to use solid-state batteries for our solar panels.”

With all the pieces of the jigsaw in place, Oxford Photovoltaics now just has to hope that it can get its perovskite technology to the market before the slew of other companies who are all hoping to cash in on the future.

Prof Snaith says: “We are the largest, most active company working on perovskite cells and because of our early advances we have intellectual property rights.

“The risk is that there is a large-scale industry already working with this same technology. However, we are hoping to have a pilot production within 12 to 18 months and then full scale production 12 months after that so we’re talking about two to three years.”

If all goes to plan, all that will be left for Prof Snaith is to watch the money pouring in.

America’s most famous tech pioneer Elon Musk is worth an estimated $21m – does Prof Snaith look forward to amassing a similar fortune? The physics professor is modest on the subject of money, merely saying: “I hope it will be very rewarding.”