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Cheaper Solar Panels Possible Due To UK Semiconductor Breakthrough

Researchers in the United Kingdom have discovered a way of making semiconductor material using common and widely available elements that may help to drive down costs of solar panels, and lead to a more widespread adoption of the technology.

Semiconductors are an integral part of the electronic circuits used in a wide range of devices and equipment, including everything from mobile phones to solar panels. But up to now, they've been manufactured using rare materials – such as indium, tellurium and gallium – that are expensive, and there has been concern about the long-term sustainability of supplies. 

Now, researchers at the University of Liverpool, along with colleagues from University College London and Binghamton University in New York, have found a way of using just tin and zinc – cheap and abundant – to make a new kind of semiconductor material that can be used in solar cells.

The development centres around the so-called "tuning process" involved are using semiconductors in the manufacture of solar panels. The researchers announced they had devised a method of tuning zinc and tin so that they can be used in semiconductors in solar cells and could one day replace the semiconductors that are currently being used.

Dr Tim Veal of the University of Liverpool's Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy said that tuneability in semiconductors had traditionally been achieved by blending elements of other materials together but with the researchers' discovery, that was no longer necessary.

Meanwhile, a researcher at Allahabad University in India has also had what's being described as a breakthrough in solar cell technology. Assistant physics professor Lokendra Kumar has been working on photovoltaic technology (PV) with colleagues at Perdue University in the United States to develop what he calls the "emerging next generation" of solar cells, the applications of which could be portable solar cells and those that are integrated into a building's structure.

He said these "new age" solar cells were similar to "plastic paint", and would be low-cost and easy to add to a building so they could more effectively harness the power of the sun and deliver greater amounts of renewable energy.