More Sustainable Solar Cells From Cobalt

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More environmentally friendly and cheaper solar cells could be manufactured using cobalt, new research as found. Researchers from the University of Basel have developed a copper-based, dye-sensitized solar cell where the expensive (and relatively rare) element iodine has been replaced by the much more common element cobalt. The new Cu-Co solar cell — as it’s been dubbed — shows no loss of performance as compared to more conventional iodine-containing, dye-sensitized solar cells.

Some context: Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs) are a type of solar cell that works by capturing sunlight via a colored dye, which then, through an electron transfer process, produces electrical current. Electrolytes function as the electron transport agents. In conventional DSCs, iodine and iodide are the typical electrolytes used.

solar cells iodine cobalt iodide
© 2013 Royal Society of Chemistry, via University of Basel

According to the researchers, this new replacement significantly improves the potential sustainability of solar cells: “Iodine is a rare element, only present at a level of 450 parts per billion in the Earth, whereas cobalt is 50 times more abundant,” states Project Officer Dr Biljana Bozic-Weber. “Furthermore, this replacement also removes one of the long-term degradation processes in which copper compounds react with the electrolyte to form copper iodide and thus improves the long-term stability of DSCs.”

While this new research represents a great step towards the goal of stable iodide-free copper solar cells, there are still some issues that need to be worked out before commercialization can begin, in anything other than niche markets that is.

“In changing any one component of these solar cells, it is necessary to optimize all other parts as a consequence,” states Ed Constable, a chemistry professor at the University of Basel. “This is part of a new approach termed ‘Molecular Systems Engineering’ in which all molecular and material components of a system can be integrated and optimized to approach new levels of sophistication in nanoscale machinery.”

The new research was just published in the journal Chemical Communications.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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