The solar energy industry has lacked a low-cost, high-performance alternative to silicon for a long time. In recent years, a family of hybrid materials called perovskites has gained attention because they can achieve high power output more cheaply than silicon. But making them work in practice has proved difficult. Early prototypes of perovskite-based solar cells weren’t as efficient as conventional silicon cells at converting the energy in sunlight into electricity.
Huanping Zhou developed a series of chemical processes that made perovskite-based solar cells more efficient and cheaper to produce. If they can be mass-produced, her innovation will make solar power much cheaper.
Growing up in the countryside of China, Zhou did not have electricity at home. She and her siblings did their homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. Her childhood experience motivated her to devote herself to solar technology.
The cell Zhou developed converts more than 20 percent of the energy in sunlight, about the same rate as existing silicon panels. Although some other perovskite cells are more efficient, Zhou’s invention is important because it makes the manufacturing process easier and cheaper. The cells can be produced at temperatures below 302 °F (150 °C) by spraying or printing a perovskite-based liquid solution onto a substrate such as glass. The process for some other types of perovskite cells requires temperatures around 932 °F.
Perovskite-based solar cells tend to degrade faster than silicon cells, so Zhou is also working on improving their durability.