17 January 2024

In a laboratory at Linköping University, researchers are working to create the material for the solar cells of the future. The goal is to produce a commercially viable product, but the journey there is long and difficult. An interdisciplinary research project is to try and find out what it takes to reach the destination.

Charlotte Perhammar

“This technology can change the way we live and produce energy in the future,” says PhD student Muyi Zhang at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

He is showing us around the laboratory. This is where development of the new solar cells based on the material perovskite takes place. Hopes are high, but so are the technological challenges. The researchers want to produce something that is stable, has a long life span and at the same time is environmentally sustainable. 

But there are also challenges beyond the walls of the laboratory. If they succeed, the researchers want the technology to be put to commercial use. As it is far from obvious how success will be achieved, they came to the conclusion some time ago that they needed help from someone with expertise in sustainability analysis and technology dissemination.
Research leader Feng Gao then contacted Professor Olof Hjelm at the Department of Management and Engineering.

“We met for lunch and realised that we can make something good of this,” explains Olof Hjelm.

They submitted an application to the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, which supports research and education in the social sciences. In December 2023, it was announced that the project, which has been named Upscaled, will receive almost SEK 10 million in grants over a five-year period. 

Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

Commercial requirements

In his research, Olof Hjelm has been interested in how to facilitate the development and dissemination of environmentally sustainable technology among companies. “To make successful companies greener and green companies more successful”, is how he sums up his ambition.

In the new project, he and his colleagues will examine the solar cells not from a purely technical perspective, but from how they meet the requirements of a commercial market.

Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar These examinations will include, for example, environmental performance and how the technology fits into a circular economy based on recycling and a low carbon footprint. What role can solar cells play in the market compared to existing products? What is required for this technology to find its place?

Based on the analyses, Olof Hjelm’s team can provide lab researchers with suggestions for changes and improvements. In this way, technology development will take place in dialogue across subject boundaries.

A new green business model

The fact that there was money available for this type of interdisciplinary research came as a pleasant surprise to Olof Hjelm.

“It was precisely that it was based on materials research and then all this with the circular economy, sustainability and market and how it would work in a society was added. That’s the kind of thing we’ve been looking at a little bit that we’d like to do,” he says.

He does not rule out that his group’s analyses could prove challenging for the materials researchers. His goal is that the project will also lead to a more general model on how to get from laboratory experiments to a sustainable, green business model.

“We think this will be a way of working that can be applied to many different types of technology where you want to go from lab-scale to large-scale implementation. And then it could result in a spin-off company that really is successful. That would be great, but it will take time.”

In addition to Olof Hjelm and Feng Gao, Muyi Zhang, Thomas Magnusson and John Laurence Esguerra are participating in the project.

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