Coating for Solar Photovoltaic Cells Wins Venture Prize Award

Researchers at the University of Oxford have won a major materials science prize to develop a high-technology coating with the potential to significantly reduce the manufacturing costs of new-generation solar photovoltaic cells.

Professor Peter Edwards, Head of Inorganic Chemistry at The University of Oxford and Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, will use the £25,000 Materials Science Venture Prize, awarded by the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, to develop manufacturing processes for his group’s transparent conducting oxide coatings.

The global market for solar photovoltaic cells was worth US$28 billion in 2009.

Currently, Indium tin oxide (ITO) is used by over 97 per cent of the transparent conducting oxide market as it possesses a near-ideal combination of high visible-light transparency and high electrical conductivity. However, indium metal is relatively scarce, expensive and has a highly volatile price. China produces over half of the world’s indium and has recently significantly reduced its export quotas. The total market for ITOs is estimated to be worth US$26.8 billion by 2016.

The new coatings were developed as part of a programme to investigate low-cost, earth abundant materials and inexpensive deposition routes which could be used for large-area transparent conducting oxide coatings for products such as solar photovoltaic cells. These coatings are based on silicon-doped zinc oxide and provide a much-needed alternative to indium tin oxide.

Professor Edwards said: “Zinc is a much more abundant material than indium, and our silicon-doped zinc oxide material offers electrical conductivities around two thirds of ITO, with comparable optical transparency. In addition to solar cells, our new coating could be used with lighting displays and LCD displays used in smart phones, computers and televisions.”

“This new coating could seriously reduce costs for manufacturers and consumers in a very exciting and growing industry, said Professor Bill Bonfield, chairman of the Armourers & Brasiers Venture Prize judging panel. “Our aim is to encourage innovative scientific entrepreneurship and help providing funding, which is often very difficult to source, to help bring new materials science research like this to market.”

The Oxford University researchers have worked closely with Dr Jamie Ferguson of Isis Innovation, the University’s technology transfer company, to protect and commercialise the coatings. Dr Ferguson said: “There is an exciting opportunity here for the UK – which already has strong glass and high-technology manufacturing industries – to capitalise on new technologies. Projects such as Professor Edwards’ transparent conductors offer the chance to strengthen our advanced materials manufacturing base by producing highly competitive new-generation materials.”

The venture prize funding will be used to trial manufacturing techniques and demonstrate the use of the new thin film coatings in photovoltaic products, organic light emitting diodes and LCD displays. Organic LEDs are a new lighting and display technology and have the advantage of being bright, requiring less power, and being suitable for displays and flat panel monitors.

Isis played a key role in the intellectual property protection and business planning for the technology, and continues to work with the academics to establish and secure funding for a new spin-out company Oxford Advanced Conductors.

The project will be co-supervised by Prof Edwards and by Dr Vladimir Kuznetsov, Senior Research Fellow in the Edwards Group.

(Global ITO market projections sourced from The Information Network, 2011)

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