Can the most exciting new solar material live up to its hype?
While perovskites have the potential to reach high efficiencies (the world record for a perovskite-only cell is just over 25%), most of the best-performing perovskite cells today are tiny—less than an inch wide.
Scaling up makes it more difficult to reach the potential efficiency limits. Right now, Saule’s panels, which are a meter wide, reach around 10% efficiency. This is dwarfed by commercial silicon panels of similar sizes, which typically hit around 20% efficiency.
Olga Malinkiewicz, Saule’s founder and chief technology officer, says the company’s goal was to get a perovskite-only solar cell out the door, and the lower efficiencies won’t matter if the technology is cheap enough.
Saule is trying to go where silicon solar panels won’t: to roofs that can’t handle the weight of heavy glass-encased panels, or to more specialized applications, such as solar-powered blinds, which the company is currently testing.
While Saule is launching thin-film products for more niche applications, other companies hope to beat, or at least join, silicon at its own game. UK-based Oxford PV is incorporating perovskites into combination perovskite-silicon cells.
Since silicon absorbs light toward the red end of the visible spectrum, and perovskites can be tuned to absorb different wavelengths, coating a layer of perovskite on top of silicon cells allows combination cells to reach higher efficiencies than silicon alone.
Oxford PV’s combination cells are heavy and rigid, like silicon-only cells. But since they’re the same size and shape, the new cells can easily slot into panels for rooftop arrays or solar farms.
Chris Case, Oxford PV’s chief technology officer, says the company is focused on lowering the levelized cost of electricity, a metric that factors in a system’s installation and lifetime operation costs. While layering perovskites on top of silicon adds to the manufacturing cost, he says the levelized cost from the combination cell should dip below silicon over time because these new cells are more efficient. Oxford has set several world records in efficiencies for this type of cell in the last few years, most recently reaching 29.5%.
Microquanta Semiconductor, a Chinese perovskite company based in Hangzhou, is also taking some cues from silicon solar cells. The company is manufacturing panels from rigid, glass-encased cells that are made with perovskites.
Microquanta’s pilot factory opened in 2020, and should reach 100 megawatts of capacity by the end of the year, says Buyi Yan, the company’s chief technology officer. The company has demonstration panels installed on several buildings and solar farms throughout China.
Solving for stability
The stability of perovskites improved from minutes to months within the span of a few years. But most silicon cells installed today have a warranty of around 25 years, a target that perovskites may not yet be able to reach.
Perovskites are particularly sensitive to oxygen and moisture, which can interfere with the bonds in the crystal, stopping electrons from moving effectively through the material. Researchers have been working to improve the lifetime of perovskites, both by developing less reactive perovskite recipes and finding better ways to package them.
Oxford PV, Microquanta, and Saule all say they’ve solved the stability issue, at least well enough to sell their first products.
Estimating long-term performance in solar cells is usually done by accelerated testing, putting cells or panels under extra-stressful conditions to simulate years of wear and tear. The most common suite of tests for outdoor silicon cells is a series called the IEC 61215.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.