Humanity’s Next Power Source: Inorganic ultra thin solar cells

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An interview with Sungkyunkwan University’s Prof. Jeong, Mun Seok
Friday, August 4th, 2017
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Jeong Mun-Seok Prof. of Sungkyunkwan University

The 21st century, with its innovative and diverse electronic systems, shows starkly the ever-growing need for electricity, most of which is powered by fossil fuels. Indeed,since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have propelled the exponential technological growth, but have also left behind specific compounds -- pollutants -- that deal significant damage to the environment. For decades, scientists and companies have been looking for “efficient” energy, a type of energy that is reusable, replenishable, yet powerful enough to sustain human needs. Now, amid growing concerns about air pollution and global warming, there is an urgent need to replace the fossil fuels.

Solar panels are a not-so-new idea. They harness direct energy from the sun, so their output levels are mostly dependent on the intensity of the sun. It lacks consistency, but it makes up for it in terms of efficiency and practicality. In fact, it’s the most realistic type of electricity that can be used alongside “everyday” electronics -- such as cars -- since it can gain energy by seemingly doing nothing but idly collecting energy from the sun. This huge advantage has caused many scientists to focus on amplifying the pros and eliminate the few major flaws.

Professor Jeong Mun-Seok of Sungkyunkwan University has found a way to fix two of the major flaws of the solar cell -- its short lifespan and toxicity. Through the use of nanomaterials, he has found a way to create inorganic solar cells, which would retain all of the significant advantages of the organic-inorganic hybrid solar cell that last longer, without the toxicity. These new solar cells have many potential uses, especially in the 4th industrial revolution. The “Smart Village,” a self-sustaining village which has been initiated as a project of the revolution, will be able to create self-sufficient energy; Prof. Jeong’s solar cells would have a lifespan that is similar to an individual house, as opposed to current solar cells, which would need to be changed often in order to continuously supply energy. These solar cells could potentially become humanity's’ next major power source.

Interview with Professor Jeong Mun-Seok

Q: I read an article where you said that you could potentially fix the short lifespan of solar cells; can you explain this a little further for me please? For example, what was the key piece of science or technology that helped you to extend the lifespan of the cell?

A: Current solar cells r cells are made of silicon -- a very cheap, yet efficient material. However, silicon is very thick, which makes it unsuited to attach onto curved surfaces or use in wearable electronics. For these purposes, organic cells [cells based on conductive organic polymers] were created. These cells are light and very efficient, but they are easily affected by oxygen, making them vulnerable to sudden drops in performance and short lifespan. Perovskite solar cells -- a hybrid cell that uses both organic and inorganic materials -- have also been in development. So far they’ve shown increased efficiency, but their lifespan is still incredibly short. Another problem is that these hybrid cells contain lead, which will cause problems for the environment once these solar panels’ lifespan ends -- an ironic situation, considering that these cells are developed to keep the environment clean, yet they produce very toxic waste material when they are broken down.

By using nanotechnology and nanomaterials, we have found a way to create ultra-thin inorganic solar cells, which retains all of the significant advantages of the hybrid solar cell, while increasing the short lifespan of the average solar cell. These cells, made with the environment in mind, do not contain any lead. Instead, we use materials that physically resemble graphene, such as MoS2 (Molybdenum disulfide) and WS2 (Tungsten disulfide), both of which have been proven to be non-toxic. This is a huge step towards resolving the irony that toxic materials are used to create clean energy.

Q. Will this new innovative technology lower the cost of production for these solar cells?

A. Silicon is one of the cheapest materials on the planet and yet it is very effective. However, it’s not flexible, so it’s very limited. Other materials have to be used; in the future, it’s hopeful that we can drop the manufacturing cost of these new materials, but so far it’s still a way off.

Q. How will this new solar cell help promote sustainable energy resources?

A: Hybrid perovskite solar cells have lead in them, which will be problematic for the environment once these solar panels’ lifespan ends. However, our inorganic solar cells don’t contain toxic materials, which make them relatively environment-friendly.

Q: Do you think poverty-stricken people will be able to use cheap, solar cell-operated electronics in the near future?

A: Too far for now. However, the progression of technology is fast, so hopefully in the future.

Q. What role do you think these solar cells will play in the 4th Industrial Revolution?

A: These new solar cells should be viewed as part of a much bigger picture, in particular, the forthcoming 4th industrial revolution. One of the most important parts of the 4th revolution is the idea of a self-sustaining “Smart Village” that can create its own energy. The creation of a solar cell that can be used on a large scale, including windows and other places that energy can be stored is always our goal. The most important factor of this is the lifespan of the solar cell. Using the current cells would force the owner to frequently change the solar panel, due to its short lifespan and reactivity to the environment, particularity oxygen. The new solar cell would have a lifespan that is similar to the house itself, as well as being thin and very flexible, which means that the new cell can be applied to many different places, such as windows, to harvest clean and quick solar energy. I wanted to use the cells on materials that require physical flexibility -- such as cloths, or curtains -- as attachable solar cells.

The solar cells, as I’ve mentioned already, utilize nanomaterials as well as nanotechnology, which are two of the most important components in the revolution. The direct correlation between the 4th Industrial Revolution and these solar cells will create another revolution, one that will start a quickly progressing change from a non-environmental friendly, non-renewable fossil fuel powered society to a society filled with energy that is easily renewable from its source yet so much friendlier to the environment. The solar powered revolution will happen, and it will allow great innovative and environmental successes alongside the advancement of technology.

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