As with many technologies, the capabilities of solar cells are directly related to their cost, so the most efficient are also the most expensive. This relationship impairs the adoption of the technology as many alternatives are able to outcompete it. Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) though have discovered a way to produce a rather efficient solar cell from cheap materials, potentially breaking that relationship.
The typical solar cell people image is made of silicon, and while this specific technology has served us well in many situations, the costs of the ultra-pure silicon, along with its fragile nature, makes it difficult to apply to all situations. Researchers have thus been working on other technologies, such as polymer and thin film solar cells, which use much cheaper components. Typically these cells are also considerably less efficient than their silicon counterparts, but the EPFL researchers have recently built a dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC) that can achieve 15% efficiency, rivaling that of many silicon solar cells. The key was developing a two-step process that allowed for precise control of the morphology of the light harvester, which had previously reduced performance.
Dye-sensitized solar cells are a kind of thin film solar cell, which means they typically can be produced cheaply and can be transparent, making them ideal for windows and other applications. The researchers see this discovery potentially leading to a new era of DSSC development.