EPSRC Prosperity Partnerships – University of Oxford and Oxford PV

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Professor Henry Snaith, University of Oxford (HS)

My name is Henry Snaith from Oxford University and together with Oxford PV we are developing the next generation of perovskite solar cells. Silicon is the main material used in existing photovoltaics. It's reaching its efficiency limit, so we have developed this material called perovskite that is a completely different semiconductor, but the beauty of it is we can put it on top of silicon and boost the efficiency. So, we are no longer limited by this ceiling that was there for silicon, we can now raise it even higher and that's presently what Oxford PV are pushing towards market. Now we can put perovskites on top of silicon, we want to get rid of the silicon entirely and have a completely low cost PV product and that's what we are trying to develop in this prosperity partnership.

Dr Christopher Case - Chief Technology Officer, Oxford PV (CC)

This is the material that most solar cells in the world are made on, silicon, and it takes about seven tons of this material to make a million watts of solar panels. With this stuff it takes 35 kilograms. So we are going to develop an all perovskites thin film solar cell that is one two hundredth of the thickness of a traditional solar cell and yet twice as efficient.

HS

Unusually for a Prosperity Partnership, Oxford PV is actually a spin-out from the University. The company has been set up to take this great idea and turn it into actual products.

CC

In this particular partnership model we actually are receiving money that will then pay to support academic research in our organisation, with our own scientists and engineers on site who will then collaborate with the laboratory at the University. This prostate material is now ten years old and yet we are just reaching commercialisation. Actually the first thing we focused on is making the product reliable, then you have to of course face the issue of scaling because the original solar cells that Henry was working on, are very tiny, you know they are barely bigger than the head of a pin. So we have to develop techniques that can produce the solar cell at low cost and for larger areas.

HS

One option would have been to take the IP we had and try to license it to other companies, but actually it would still take some persuasion to persuade a multinational that this new idea that looks promising in lab, is actually going to be a technology within the next few decades. A single patent has some value but what really has a lot of value is a whole package and in fact a technology. To do that by creating a spin-out company which then can take that base core IP and develop around it and develop a whole package that's actually commercialisable, that's where the real value is created. The challenges we have faced have been partly technical, partly business. We had to overcome issues with stability, we had to make the materials last long enough that they are passing all the international standard tests for photovoltaics. Our challenges now have gone from fundamental technical risk to commercial risk, but actually the possibility for success is absolutely tangible. We believe perovskites on silicon followed by all perovskites multi junction cells, will be the best technologies for delivering high efficiency low cost, so where we could grow to is almost unbounded.

CC

I actually like taking technology to market, but the interface with the research teams is still critical because you never stop learning, they are always improving your product, driving the cost down and making it more efficient so you must keep a tight relationship with your R&D teams and of course ultimately the research people who support them.

HS

Of course companies' commercial research centres cannot afford to have that breadth of research which chances upon these sorts of discoveries. The EPSRC investment in the university research has delivered fantastic science, but that science has underpinned the understanding of the materials and devices that has been invaluable for the company to really understand the product it is developing, which has enabled us to be in this position where we are sitting here with a game changing technology on the verge of making it really happen, making it really deployable.