Steel beam solar cells? A technology of the future

Imagine being in a sky scraper where the huge glass windows and steel beams act as solar cells, soaking up the sun’s light and generating electricity. This is exactly the vision of one Australian company, Dyesol, which is commercialising dye-sensitised solar cell technology. 

Dye-sensitised solar cells (DSC for short) are a generation of solar cells being developed that mimic the action of plants in converting sunlight to energy. Plants use a process called photosynthesis; absorbing sunlight with chlorophyll in a reaction with carbon dioxide and water to produce glucose and oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical process that is responsible for all the earth’s stored energy and life forms.

Dye-sensitised solar cells work by a process coined œartificial photosynthesis, where the leaf structure, chlorophyll and energy circuit are mimicked by high tech materials, with the crucial substance being a long life nanoparticle dye. DSC cells separate the two functions provided by silicon in current PV cells, where the silicon acts as both the source of photoelectrons and the housing for the electric field that separates the charges to create a current. In DSC cells the special dye provides the photoelectrons and the surfaces between the dye and surrounding material (for instance a steel beam) provide the medium for charge separation.

Although the technology is still in its infancy it could open up a new world of solar energy generation. The share market seems to think so too, with Dyesol, the Australian champion of DCS technology, almost quintupling in value from 20c at its float to 96c today. The company has a market cap of about $100 million, 70 staff, with 50 in Australia, 15 in Wales and others in Italy, Switzerland, Japan and the US.

Commercialisation of DSC technology has had a few teething problems but shows enormous promise. Although the energy efficiency of the technology is lower than traditional PV cells it’s lower cost of manufacture means that on a very large scale it has the ability to compete with fossil fuel electricity generation.

The possibilities for use are also remarkable. It can be embedded into steel, glass and other building materials, and due to its thin film nature, also flexible sheets such as yacht sails. It is mechanically robust, heat insensitive and effective even in cloudy conditions.

So solar energy doubters beware, one day you could be sitting underneath a steel beam that powers your air conditioner.

Kobad Bhavnagri
Solar Energy Consultant
Solar Choice Pty Ltd

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