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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Need improved solar panels? Just add salt, say scientists

Steve Connor

Published 26/06/2014 | 02:30

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Liverpool university scientists have developed a way to make solar panels using salt found in seawater, slashing the cost. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images
Liverpool university scientists have developed a way to make solar panels using salt found in seawater, slashing the cost. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

A breakthrough in the production of solar cells will make the next generation of solar panels cheaper and safer, and promises to accelerate the development of solar energy over the next decade, scientists said.

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A technical advance based on an edible salt used in the manufacture of tofu could revolutionise the production of solar panels to make them less expensive, more flexible and easier to use.

Researchers believe they have found a way of overcoming one of the most serious limitations of the latest models, which are based on toxic cadmium chloride, by adding magnesium chloride, an abundant salt found in seawater.

A study has shown that the solar cells produced with magnesium chloride – which is also used to coagulate soya milk into tofu – work just as efficiently as conventional cadmium cells but at a fraction of the cost.

"We certainly believe it's going to make a big change to the costs of devices," said Jon Major of the University of Liverpool, who led the research.

About 90 per cent of solar panels are made of photovoltaic cells composed of silicon semiconductors, which convert sunlight into electricity. However, silicon is not good at absorbing sunlight which is why most new PV cells will be based on a thin coating of cadmium telluride, which absorbs sunlight so well it only needs to be about 100th of the thickness of silicon.

It is not possible to estimate how much cheaper the new solar cells will be, Dr Major said, but magnesium chloride costs about 1pc of the cost of cadmium chloride. In addition, waste disposal will be far easier and cheaper.

Independent News Service

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