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Changing the Solar Cell Market

Professor Mercouri G. Kanatzidis (Weinberg) knew there had to be a better way. Though perovskite solar cells had shown compelling promise since 2012, reenergizing the solar field and leading some to call the technology “the next big thing in photovoltaics,” the mainstream potential of the technology faced a glaring obstacle: the presence of toxic lead. 

A seminal publication in 2012 helped to spark the field of perovskites. This pushed Kanatzidis—an inorganic chemist—and his Northwestern team of researchers, including nanoscientist Robert Chang (McCormick), to develop a lead-free alternative. In 2014, Kanatzidis’ group found early success by swapping lead for tin as the harvester of light. Subsequent innovation from the Kanatzidis-directed team has spurred significant interest from both public and private enterprise, particularly given that Kanatzidis’ technology requires neither elaborate equipment nor hazardous materials. 

Currently, Kanatzidis’ lab is working to raise the efficiency levels of its tin solar cells to 10 percent, specifically seeking ways to extract extra voltage from the post-transition metal. They are also working to prepare a stable device that can be further developed into a panel. Success in those efforts, Kanatzidis says, will help him license the technology or secure a partnership to accelerate the discovery process. “Solar energy is the only sustainable energy and we hope to translate our discovery to the broad-based distribution of solar energy panels that convert sunlight to electricity for homes and businesses in a more environmentally friendly way and at a lower cost than presently available,” says Kanatzidis. He is also working with INVO on two other environmental projects, one that removes radioactive elements from nuclear waste and another that cleans industrial water from toxic metals.