Never Say Die

The Australian pioneer of Dye Solar Cell technology is partnering with major players in building materials to target the BIPV market with its ‘third generation’ photovoltaic system. Its founder tells Andrew Lee how the long journey from the lab has led it to the brink of mass-market launch.

Renewable energy technology businesses are well used to the role of the newcomer and the underdog, battling to build a share of a market dominated by the conventional giants of fossil and nuclear.

As the sector matures, however, the established order of the renewables industry will itself face challenges from emerging technologies that claim they offer the path to a brighter future, but still face the considerable challenges of building a significant position in the market.

Dyesol is a good example of how a never say die – or maybe that should be never say dye – step-by-step approach to taking a promising technology from lab to market can bring it to the brink of commercial breakthrough.

The Australia-based company is commercialising dye solar cell (DSC) technology, described as a ‘third generation’ PV technology that mimics the process of photosynthesis in nature to convert materials coated with the cells into a ‘light sponge’ (see box panel on page 84).

It was recently named as a Bloomberg New Energy Finance Pioneer, selected by the respected research and intelligence group as one of the companies with the most promising innovative technologies in the global clean-tech arena.

The considerable prize that Dyesol has its eyes on is the global market for Building Integrated PV (BIPV), still relatively niche but tipped for huge expansion as momentum increases to make urban areas more energy efficient.

Above: Dyesol’s technology can be used for specialist applications

The company has adopted a strategy of building its global profile through a twin-pronged approach of proving its underlying technology and forming partnerships with major players already facing the burgeoning BIPV sector, or with ambitions to enter it.

The latest of those joint ventures came as recently as March when Dyesol signed a memorandum of understanding with Pilkington North America to develop glass-based BIPV products.

Pilkington, part of the global glass and glazing giant NSG, represents a key partner for Dyesol. According to the two, 90% of the 50 million tonnes of flat glass produced annually is destined for use in buildings, which in turn consume more than half of all electricity generated.

The Pilkington partnership adds to a long-standing tie-up with Corus, the UK-based steel group, which is working with Dyesol to integrate DSCs into steel building products produced by coil coating, most notably for roofing.

The growing roll-call of major partners and recognition from the likes of Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggest a fast-gathering momentum behind Dyesol. However, Gavin Tulloch, the straight-talking global managing director of Dyesol, has been on a long enough journey with DSC technology to take the ups and downs with equanimity.

Tulloch, a materials engineer by technical background, founded STI, the forerunner of Dyesol, in Australia in the mid-1990s. He explained that the technology’s path to recognition has been a difficult one, and the process is not over yet. He points to the absence of silicon (traditional semiconductors), for example, as a cause of preconceptions that needed to be overcome.

‘It took many years just to get accepted as PV at all,’ he explained. ‘The initial reaction in the business was “we don’t like this, it’s not PV”. It’s a case we had to work hard to prove.’

Their early experience with STI convinced Tulloch and the rest of Dyesol’s management team that the way forward was to first bring on side, then work with, partners which already have strong presences in the markets the company is seeking to address. Corus and Pilkington are examples of this.

The partnership model is crucial, said Tulloch. ‘We’ve adopted the approach of working with companies whose products are accepted in the marketplace. They take on the considerable liability of saying to their customers “we wouldn’t put it out there if it didn’t work”.

Tulloch is in no doubt that Dyesol is in exactly the right place in the market by seeking, via its partners, to weave its technology into the very fabric of buildings. The foundation for his conviction is, he claims, extremely simple – the elimination of the need for a grid and generation at the point of consumption.

According to Tulloch, the established PV industry’s taste for large-scale solar farms is misguided for the very reason that they need an expensive grid infrastructure to get the power they generate from its source.

‘We’ve consistently said that solar farms are an artifice,’ said Tulloch. ‘They have to compete with other lower-cost resources and, most of all, they need a grid. The grid is the biggest single cost.’

It is far better, according to Tulloch, to cut out that stage of the process altogether. ‘Where is the electricity needed? In the case of more than 50% of the electricity transmitted it’s used in buildings. What source of renewable energy can you practically put on a building? It’s solar.’

According to Tulloch, here the inherent advantages of DSCs come into their own because ‘classical solar doesn’t work except on roofs facing at the correct angle,’ let alone on the walls and glazing that form the majority of available space on many buildings.

Dyesol makes a virtue of promoting its cells as suitable for these surfaces, and that they work more effectively in low-light conditions. When it comes to efficiency levels of products, ‘we’ll be around the 5% mark,’ said Tulloch.

But Dyesol insists that the overall package of benefits to using its technology in applications such as BIPV is more important than the standard measures beloved of the PV industry.

The company claims DSCs are a more sustainable technology than silicon-based PV as they have a lower level of embodied energy.

Below: Dye solar cell architecture is claimed to offer advantages in BIPV

Sidebar

Cooking up a ‘Light sponge’: DSC and Dyesol technology

According to Dyesol, dye solar cell technology (DSC) can be best characterised as ‘artifical photosynthesis.’ As a plant leaf uses sunlight absorbed by chlorophyll to convert CO2 and water into food energy, the DSC replaces the leaf structure with a porous titania nano-structure and the chlorophyll with a long-life dye. The energy circuit is completed by a redox couple.

An effective DSC was first successfully demonstrated in Switzerland in the late 1980s after years of efforts to replicate the principle of natural photosynthesis for solar energy generation.

Dyesol is an original licensee of the technology developed in Switzerland and has been seeking commercial applications for the technology since 1994.

There are crucial differences between its DSC technology and ‘classical’ PV, says Dyesol. Its technology is based on a photoelectrochemical cell, where charge separation occurs on an interface between a wide-bandgap semiconductor, such as titanium dioxide, and an electrolyte. It describes its system as a ‘light sponge’ – a cell based on a nanoparticulate porous film (rather than dense silicon) which is photosensitised by a monolayer of dye.

Sidebar

Event Previews: Intersolar North America and Europe

There are major events for the solar technology community on both sides of the Atlantic over the next few months as Intersolar Europe and Intersolar North America prepare to open their doors.

The Intersolar North America Exhibition will be staged in San Francisco’s Moscone Center West Hall from 13–15 July. The event’s organisers expect around 20,000 visitors to flock to the giant venue, which will host some 550 US and international exhibitors from the various sectors that make up the global solar industry.

The exhibition will be divided into a number of segments to help visitors navigate towards the areas they are particularly interested in. These include: PV cells & modules (including BIPV solutions); Wafers, Materials & equipment; System technologies & inverters; Components, Tracking & mounting systems; Solar thermal technology; and a final grouping of other areas that includes research and development, testing institutes, education and training providers, finance bodies and trade associations.

The Intersolar North America Exhibition will also feature an Innovation Exchange that will showcase new and emerging technologies and products, a Jobs and Careers forum and the City Solar Awards & Networking Event.

On 12 July, the event will also be the platform for the awards ceremony for the Solar for All initiative, which aims to make solar energy affordable to the estimated 1.6 billion people around the world without access to electricity. The design competition for manufacturers and PV system integrators offers a US$250,000 equity investment as first prize.

Running alongside the exhibition from 12-15 July is the Intersolar North America Conference, which takes place in the adjacent Intercontinental Hotel. The organisers are expecting some 1600 delegates to the conference, which will cover three distinct fields.

The first, photovoltaics, will look at, among many other topics, markets and trends in the PV sector, manufacturing and quality issues for new markets in developing nations, and the role of utilities in adopting renewable energy.

The second main conference theme is solar thermal technology, which will look at international developments in the field. The final key element is provided by concentrating solar thermal.

Around a month before Intersolar North America, the European Intersolar event will take place in Munich. Intersolar Europe, as it is officially named for the first time this year, will run from 9 –11 June at the city’s New Munich Trade Fair Centre.

The exhibition will be divided into distinct sections for photovoltaics and solar thermal, and as last year a hall will be devoted to PV production. According to the organisers, the Intersolar Europe Conference will run from 7–11 June, and addresses the same broad themes as the North American event. Highlights include sessions looking at PV market trends in Europe, the US and India, and a look at thin-film technology. For more information visit www.intersolar.us or www.intersolar.de

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