Kai Zhu, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), spent a decade trying to wrest the highest possible efficiencies from dye-sensitized solar cells. “Work on the traditional dye cell was not going well,” he recalled. “It was relatively flat in terms of performance. People in the field were frustrated.”
Initially able to convert 7% of sunlight into electricity, dye cells ticked upward to about 11% in 2004 and held fast. Despite the best efforts of scientists around the world, the dye cell couldn’t catch up—or even get close—to the above-20% efficiencies dominated by silicon solar panels.
Then, because research requires thinking about problems differently, some scientists tried supplementing the dye cells with organic-inorganic hybrid crystalline materials: perovskites. The combination captured more of the sun’s energies but increased the efficiency only by a few percentage points. Other scientists discovered perovskites alone were highly effective at absorbing sunlight. Initial published research showed a perovskite solar cell with an efficiency of approximately 3% in 2009. That number more than doubled within two years and more than tripled by 2012, when Zhu and other NREL researchers shifted their efforts.
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