Imperial academic wins 2.4m European funding to improve solar harvesting tech

Professor Jenny Nelson has won a prestigious European Research Council grant to learn lessons from plants and apply them to solar technologies.

She will use the grant to unpick how plants convert sunlight to energy efficiently, and use their principles to design more efficient materials for solar-harvesting technologies.

The widespread use of solar technologies requires new materials, and here we can learn from the best: nature. Professor Jenny Nelson

Professor Nelson, from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, said: "Avoiding dangerous climate change is probably the greatest challenge facing humanity. Generating renewable electricity from wind and solar will be crucial to transitioning away from harmful fossil fuels.

"The widespread use of solar technologies requires new materials, and here we can learn from the best: nature. Combining insights from biology with computer modelling and materials design could help improve the design of new types of solar cell."

The five-year project is called ’POTENtIAl: Optimising solar photochemical energy conversion by learning from nature’.

Boosting efficiency

Most PV panels, like those seen on building roofs and in solar farms, are made from crystalline silicon. But new materials that are transparent, flexible or lightweight could allow solar panels to be built into curved surfaces or windows, and so generate more solar electricity.

Professor Nelson is looking at a type of material, molecular semiconductors, which might do just that. The new materials are more versatile than silicon-based materials and could have lower environmental impact.

Currently the efficiency of molecular PV cells is lower that of silicon (around 20% conversion of sunlight to electricity compared to over 26% for silicon). This is because the new materials lose a fraction of the sun’s energy through a process called non-radiative recombination. But this could be improved by understanding how the type and colour of molecules and the way they pack together affects the loss process.

To do this, Professor Nelson will lead a team to gain insights from natural photosynthesis. The first few steps in the process of conversion of solar energy in photosynthesis are almost identical to the first few steps in a molecular solar cell. But the natural system loses less energy via non-radiative recombination.

By studying the two systems side by side, using computer models and measurements of how the materials absorb and emit light, she aims to learn from the natural systems to improve the artificial ones. The end goal is to come up with a series of design principles: which changes in the molecular make-up or structure of a PV device will cause which effects?

Horizon Europe

The UK is now fully associated to Horizon Europe and Imperial research can participate in and lead projects across the programme.

Imperial was recently awarded major funding for projects in climate and weather, carbon capture and Alzheimer’s healthcare.

To find out more about opportunities in Horizon Europe, please get in touch with the Research Office and the Enterprise Research Impact Management Office.