Putting perovskite on the map

Olga Malinkiewicz

“My dream is to have solar cells that after some time will degrade like leaves on a tree – and can be replaced with new ones."

If you’re unfamiliar with the word perovskite don't be too alarmed. This strange, wonderful and obscure material was virtually unknown until several years ago, when a young Polish science student was introduced to it.

Olga Malinkiewicz

Today, perovskite crystals - classified 100 years ago after being found in the rocks of the Ural Mountains - are fast making a name for themselves in the world of solar science thanks to many unique properties - from their flexible, crystalline structure to their ability to absorb light.

Tomorrow? Perovskite could be a household name, literally. There’s every chance that solar cells made with perovskite (instead of traditional silicon) could  be heating our homes instead of fossil fuels: In the windows, the roof, and even the walls.

How and why did this happen? Olga Malinkiewicz was that student. Today she is the CTO of her own start-up, Saule Technologies. “I first saw a demonstration of the material at a conference in Seville. I could see that it had potential to convert the sun’s energy very efficiently - and I couldn’t believe that device preparation in the case of perovskite solar cells was so simple!” she says. “The attraction was instant. When I returned from the conference I abandoned my previous research into organic solar cells and focused 100% on perovskite.”

In the laboratory

The biggest obstacle facing Olga’s was the fact that perovskite solar cells only worked if high temperatures (500 degrees c) were applied during the fabrication. Eventually she developed a novel cell architecture that eliminated the need for high temperatures from the process. As she recalls: “To prove the point I made a solar cell on plastic foil. This was based on the simple logic that if it worked on foil, it would work on anything!”

By the end of 2013 Olga’s work was published in Nature Photonics and then she was recognized with the Photonics 21 award by the EU Commission “for potential high impact to the industry” in photonics.

Fast forward a couple of very busy years and Saule technologies is now on the verge of commercializing this technology. Astonishingly, thanks to the wafer-thin nature of Perovskites, the solar cells will still be printed onto foil - in one-meter rolls. Which in turn plays to another great benefit of this material: Its aesthetic appearance.

Today’s photovoltaic modules are often ‘blocky-looking’ structures containing rigid silicon solar panels; not always a pretty sight.

In the laboratory

However, perovskite solar cells are much thinner than silicon cells - just tenths of a micrometer thick - making them cheaper to produce and ultra-lightweight. It means they can be seamlessly combined with glass panes; they can cover tiles (converting the entire roof into one huge photovoltaic panel); and can even be applied to the entire walls of modern buildings.

In all cases the result is the same: The creation of fossil-free electricity.

“My dream is to have solar cells that after some time will degrade like leaves on a tree – and can be replaced with new ones. Perovskites are partially organic, so it should be possible,” says Olga.

And to think, all of this very nearly didn’t happen. “The only reason I decided to attend the conference in Seville was because it was close to where I was living in Valencia. Had it been held further away, I probably wouldn’t have gone there!”

We’re glad she made the trip.

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