A material revolution in solar

Bruno Ehrler’s research group at AMOLF is contributing to new technologies that may radically change the pace of developments in photovoltaics. “My vision is a big European solar industry that’s self-sufficient,” says Ehrler. “And the Netherlands can play a big role in that.”

You work with new materials for solar cells. What does that mean?

The solar cells you can buy and put on your roof are made of silicon, and silicon is a very old material. It works really well, but it’s now so optimised that it hits its efficiency limit. You can’t really improve it anymore. So, using new materials would be better in many ways. Silicon is very good at what it does: it’s a cheap, stable, efficient material to make a standard solar panel with. But if you want a lightweight or flexible solar panel, that won’t work with silicon. We work on materials called perovskites, which are useful for that issue.

We’re also working on improving silicon cells: you could take a silicon cell and put a second layer on top that’s made from different materials, mostly perovskites, which can work in combination with silicon. This is called a tandem cell. With a silicon cell, it’s physically impossible to use more than roughly 30% of the energy in sunlight. But if you add another layer, you can theoretically go up to 45%.

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Could you give us an example for a recent development that might change things?

In solar cells, most developments are quite incremental. If you manage to make a solar cell one percent more efficient, that’s a huge development, because there are so many solar panels being made. We make about 20 solar panels per second in the world.

Adding the new layer, perovskites, has really caused a more disruptive breakthrough – they were only discovered for solar conversion about 10 years ago. Since then, there’s been a huge run to make them a commercial product. Silicon has taken 60 years to get to 26% efficiency. Perovskites have taken 10 years to get to almost the same efficiency.

And they are also special because normally, to make a solar cell, everything has to be extremely clean. Perovskites are different: they work really well even if they have impurities, so you can make them perform efficiently even if you have a really simple, cheap lab. That is why they are unique, and that is also why they’ve developed so quickly: many labs can contribute.

You’re talking about an industry that’s about to undergo a lot of disruption. What applications do you see for your own research?

The solar industry is a bit of a weird game, because while the research is really strong in Europe – some of the best groups working on these materials are based here – most of the industry is not. To a large extent, it is based in Asia, mostly in China. There are huge efforts now from the EU to get the industry back to Europe, because we have realised how important it is to have energy independence. Recent events have made this even more clear. There are now several initiatives to establish that industry, on a national level and a European level.

So, we would love to see our research having an impact on solar panels sold on the market, ideally by local companies. In a broader sense, my vision is that we should have a big European solar industry that makes us self-sufficient, that can produce all the solar panels we need within Europe. And I think the Netherlands can play an important role in that, given the strong research base we have.

To add to that, there are several scenarios for what our future energy system could look like. These scenarios consider how we could achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050 – that is the aim we have. Most cost-effective ways typically involve a lot of solar energy, usually between 30-70% of the total energy supply. It is the most cost-effective way of producing a lot of energy, and a lot of energy means a lot of prosperity.

And ideally also a livable planet, by the end of it?

That would be nice, as an added benefit! Yes, the quicker we do this, the less fossil fuels we have to burn along the way.


Bruno Ehrler, Research group leader AMOLF “I really like these industry collaborations, because they often bring up relevant and interesting questions. That’s inspiring. ”

If I were a company and I wanted research done, where would I go?

Of course, AMOLF would work. We also have the SolarLab, which is a collaboration network of about 50 research groups in the Netherlands active in the field. It is a great way to approach the research landscape, because we know what everyone is doing. So, if you have a specific question, we can probably find the best person to talk to.

Do you also make use of the wider ecosystem at Amsterdam Science Park?

We certainly collaborate actively within the Science Park. Many group leaders at AMOLF are also lecturers at the UvA. We have collaboration projects with industry partners based at the Science Park, such as the LED company Seaborough and the microscopy company ASI. Many groups at AMOLF work with ARCNL, our neighbour institute.

There are direct collaborations with PhD students and industry. In the case of ASI, they co-developed an electron microscope tool with us. In a new project, we are now expanding that work to build unique capabilities: we are combining microscopy with light and voltages, so you can look at devices in situ while they’re operating, and do very specialised types of electromicroscopy.

I really like these industry collaborations, because they often bring up relevant and interesting questions. That’s inspiring. And it gives us a clear idea what the industry needs. But they also ask us fundamental questions, which is a nice combination. We do look for fundamental material-science questions, that is what we are good at.

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