There’s no denying the science: to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Solar energy – inexhaustible, renewable, clean and cost-efficient – is essential to achieving that goal. And solar energy research at Amsterdam Science Park is making discoveries that bring new solar benefits and opportunities.
Solar energy is produced by both the sun’s light (photovoltaic energy) and its warmth (solar thermal energy). There are countless benefits to solar energy. It emits no toxic substances or contaminants. It neither generates waste nor relies on sometimes scarce water supplies. As the technology improves and scales up, the cost of solar energy is reduced and its benefits for business increase. Along with wind, solar is the most sustainable solution to the world’s power needs – both environmentally and economically.
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The push to achieve CO2 neutrality by 2050 requires a fundamental change in the world’s energy systems. Bob van der Zwaan of the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences carries out techno-economic analyses for the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and for the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) that explore the new technologies needed for the energy transition. He and his team look at issues including what he calls ‘the payback time of solar energy’. Making solar panels costs energy and causes emissions, so it creates its own carbon footprint. His work involves calculating that footprint and how long it takes to make up for the energy used initially to manufacture solar panels.
Increasing efficiency is a priority for solar-energy scientists. Current technology harnesses less than a third of the energy the sun has to give. Solar energy researchers, students, startups and companies at Amsterdam Science Park are working to change that. Innovators in the field include:
Bruno Ehrler heads AMOLF’s Hybrid Solar Cell Group, which develops materials for more efficient solar cells. Standard solar panels such as those installed on roofs are made of silicone, which, says Ehrler, “works well but is now so optimised that it has hit its own efficiency limit. You can’t really improve standard solar panels anymore. So using new materials would be better.” His group is currently looking at improving silicone cells by coating them with a second layer of a different material, usually perovskites, a mineral. Silicone cells can only use up to around 30% of the energy in sunlight, but adding another layer could bring that up to 45%. And that’s a real breakthrough, according to Ehrler: “If you manage to make a solar cell even 1% more efficient, that’s a huge development, because there are so many solar panels being made. But adding this new layer, perovskites, is a more disruptive breakthrough. Silicone’s taken 60 years to get to 26% efficiency. The perovskites have taken 10 years to get to almost the same level.”
While solar research is very strong in Europe, the manufacturing industry is based in Asia. The EU is keen to establish the industry in Europe to ensure energy independence. Ehrler is optimistic that his work can contribute to that: “We would love to see our research having an impact on solar panels that get sold on the market. My vision is that we should have a big European solar industry that’s self-sufficient, that can produce all the solar panels we need inside Europe. And I think the Netherlands can play a big role in that, given the strong research base we have.”
Tijmen Bakker is a postdoc researcher at the UvA working on green solar cells that function indoors. His research has earned him a place in the new Faculty of Impact programme, which offers two-year fellowships to promising young researchers to support them in turning their discoveries into a business.
Bakker has developed a new type of solar cell that mimics the way in which plants can capture energy even in low light. The cells work well indoors and inspired Bakker’s vision of a battery-free world. “Look at how many indoor devices use a battery that you have to charge. If I put a light cell on such devices – TV remote controls for instance – suddenly I never have to buy a battery again!” He believes his innovation could be instrumental in reducing the world’s battery waste stream and dependence on raw materials such as lithium.
Bakker is enthusiastic about the Faculty for Impact: “I recommend it for anyone who wants to be retrained from science to entrepreneur. Coaches help you with branding, business development, finances, legal issues, and you visit other entrepreneurs and learn how they do it, what the pitfalls and strengths are.”
Bakker hopes to bring the first devices with integrated solar cells, such as remote controls and smoke detectors, to market within five years. And his ambitions for the future don’t stop there: “You can stick a solar cell on everything! Think of larger applications, such as laptops or phones. Of course, they cost much more energy, so a small cell is not enough. But as the technology evolves, you can imagine that the back of your phone could become an indoor solar cell that just charges slowly, and you never have to charge it yourself again.”
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