The largest single research project into solar power ever funded by the UK research councils was launched this month and could help make the energy source much more widely used in Britain
The University of Bath is among six universities and seven companies in the UK that began the £4.5 million project this month (April) to halve the cost of converting the sun's rays to electricity using solar cells.
The four-year research project could make solar power a viable alternative to fossil fuels, supplies of which are expected dwindle in the future. Cutting the cost of solar energy will stimulate more use of it in Britain, for instance to supply electricity in buildings by putting solar panels on their roofs.
Up to now most solar cells have traditionally been made using single crystal silicon, which is produced in an expensive high temperature process. But the new project will develop new 'thin film' solar cells, which, although less efficient as the existing single crystal cells, are potentially much cheaper to make.
The University of Bath's Department of Chemistry has been given £500,000 of the grant to look at low cost ways of making the new cells from copper indium sulphide and copper indium gallium sulphide. New electroplating methods will allow cells to be put onto large area panels by immersing them in liquid rather than by using more expensive and less environmentally-friendly methods.
The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and is entitled Photovoltaic Material for the 21st Century. It is the largest grant the EPSRC has made for solar energy research.
The other universities are: Durham, Wales, Northumbria, Southampton and Loughborough. The companies are: Crystalox, Mats UK, Millbrook Instruments, Epichem, Kurt J Lesker, Oxford Lasers and Gatan UK.
The project is part of the EPSRC's "Supergen" initiative, a £25 million project to look at alternative energy sources such as the sea, wind and the sun, and also at more efficient ways of storing power.
Professor Laurence Peter, head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath and leader of the solar cell research group, said: "The solar energy project will make an enormously important contribution to providing more environmentally-friendly power for the UK and the rest of the world.
"As existing supplies of oil and gas dwindle, so we need to find alternatives that will not damage the environment and solar energy is ideal for this, even in countries like Britain where the sun doesn't always shine.
"The University of Bath is developing novel ways of making cheaper solar cells, and I'm pleased that we are playing such an important part in this project."