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Durham University leads UK research project into cheaper solar energy

A national team of scientists led by experts at Durham University are embarking on one of the UK’s largest ever research projects into photovoltaic (PV) solar energy.

The £6.3million PV-21 programme will focus on making thin-film light absorbing cells for solar panels from sustainable and affordable materials.

The four-year project, which begins in April (2008), is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under the SUPERGEN initiative.

Eight UK universities, led by Durham and including Bangor, Bath, Cranfield, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Northumbria and Southampton, are involved in the project.

They will work together with nine industrial partners towards a “medium to long-term goal” of making solar energy more competitive and sustainable, particularly in light of the recent rise in fossil fuel prices.

At present solar cells – used to convert light energy into electricity - are made from key components such as the rare and expensive metal indium which costs approximately £320 ($660) per kilogram.

To cut costs in solar cell production the research team will work to reduce the thickness of the cells.

Making a solar semiconductor thinner by one millionth of a metre in solar cells generating one gigawatt of power could save 50 tonnes of material.

Researchers will also experiment with sustainable low-cost materials which could be used in the manufacturing of solar cells and on the use of nanotechnology and dyes on ultra-thin silicon to capture increased amounts of energy from the sun’s rays.

Principal investigator Professor Ken Durose, in the Department of Physics, at Durham University, said: “With the rapid increase in fossil fuel prices and the recent Government announcement about investment in nuclear power it is even more important that we look at long-term future energy generation from solar power.

“At present you would need tens of tonnes of very rare and expensive materials for large scale production of solar cells to produce sizeable amounts of power.

“Some of the materials currently used may not be sustainable in 20 years time which is why we have to conduct research into alternative materials that are cheaper to buy and more sustainable.

“We are also leading the way in making ultra-thin solar cells that need less material.

“Our medium to long-term goal is to make a major contribution to achieving competitive photovoltaic solar energy, which we hope will lead to an uptake in the use of solar power.”

The latest funding follows an initial four-year research project by PV-21 focusing on the development of thin-layer PV cells using compound semiconductors based on the cadmium telluride and chalcopyrite systems.

This work will form the basis for testing new ideas over the next four years.

Chris Pywell, Head of Strategic Economic Change at regional development agency One NorthEast, said: “This project will add substantially to the position of North East England which is already at the forefront of photovoltaic energy research.

“This leading position presents a great opportunity to the region as the world addresses climate change. As well as the strengths of Durham and Northumbria universities that are demonstrated by this success, we have the PV development facilities at NaREC, the new PETEC facilities at NETPark, and great businesses such as ROMAG.

“The Agency, Durham University and our other partners are committed to building on this new project and our many other successes to ensure the region leads the UK in renewable energy.”

Leighton Kitson | alfa
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