Physicists Gavin Bell and Yorck Ramachers joined the Energy GRP when it began in 2012. In 2010 alongside their core research areas in Materials Science and Particle Physics respectively, they were looking into an alternative design for solar panels. Through GRP events in both Energy and Materials they have been able to develop interdisciplinary connections and work with colleagues to bring their concept to its outcome.
Yorck and Gavin recently published their paper on Photoelectric Solar Power Revisited which details their developments. They explain that of itself the theory is nothing new – it uses a double glazed panel with a thin film on the lower layer, this allows sunlight to travel through the upper, transparent layer, then electrons are bounced off the thin film and back across the gap to the upper layer which then conducts electricity off. – The idea has been put forth many times and in many places. What differentiates their approach from previous iterations of the design is that between the two layers, instead of a vacuum, which brings inherent difficulties, recent work in particle physics has shown that an inert gas, such as argon can provide an ideal environment for the electrons to traverse the gap.
The big question that remains is – what material would form the optimum coating for the lower ‘electron bouncing’ layer? Finding the right material to produce this effect on visible light will be the main challenge for anyone taking this concept to its next step. In the meantime though, Gavin and Yorck have essentially proved the concept through developing the same technology, working with UV rather than visible light, an approach which lends itself to creating UV sensors. This development has proved applicable to a number of uses – most notably in creating sensors for environmental monitoring of water and for sensing fire – particularly useful in cases where the flame is invisible i.e. hydrogen. This work has essentially created a new research area for Yorck and Gavin, and they have been able, again through the GRPs, to supervise URSS students to conduct some of this research. Opening this avenue of research has even led all the way back around to particle physics, through developing applications in particle acceleration.
Yorck and Gavin’s hopes for their solar panel design are that it can be taken on and developed further now that they have identified and published the fundamental limits. There is a long way to go, but as a simpler method of capturing energy from the sun, it could translate to cheaper and more efficient solar power.