A potential new use for lead could dramatically lower the cost and raise the efficiency of photovoltaic solar cells.
Using a compound called perovskite, which contains lead, in the photovoltaic cells that make up solar panels, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced that they have achieved a power-conversion efficiency of more than 19%, similar to commercial silicon-based solar cells.
As the production of perovskite solar cells takes place at relatively low temperatures with fewer steps in the process it is expected to make large scale production much lower in cost than the manufacture of conventional solar cells. MIT is one of several research groups around world that are exploring this potential use.
Such an application would complement lead’s role in helping to reduce carbon emissions in two of its current major uses - batteries for advanced automotive and renewable energy applications.
Responding to these results, ILA Managing Director Dr Andy Bush, said: “Lead batteries are already an integral part of many solar energy systems and it is encouraging to see that this new use has the potential to be yet another cost effective and sustainable application for lead.”
“As MIT points out it is important to consider the entire life cycle of materials in large-scale energy systems and we believe that few, if any, other materials can offer a better life cycle solution than lead in such systems.”
The MIT research established that lead from recycled batteries could be used to produce the photovoltaic cells. Lead batteries are one of the most recycled consumer products with collection and recycling rates of 99% in Europe and North America.
However misconceptions regarding the environmental stewardship of lead have resulted in MIT and other researchers raising some unwarranted concerns over the potential use of lead.
Lead-based batteries represent one of the best examples of a sustainable product. High recycling rates keep millions of tonnes of lead and other battery materials out of landfills every year. Hence lead’s application in solar cells need not be viewed as a way to ‘divert toxic materials from landfills’ since it does not enter them in the first place.
Demand for lead batteries has continued to grow as it is a cost-effective, safe, reliable and proven technology in the automotive industry, for motive applications such as lift trucks and golf carts, and for emergency power back-up worldwide. The resulting growing demand for lead is met by primary production (production from mineral ore versus recycling), thus increasing the volume of lead recirculating in the closed (or recycling) loop.
Lead-based batteries are currently essential in automotive applications with virtually every vehicle worldwide using a lead battery for at least some of its power needs, including hybrid and electric vehicles. Recent innovations mean that advanced lead batteries are expected to continue to play an important role in the automotive sector for the foreseeable future, for example in start-stop technology, which results in significant CO2 savings at low-cost. Therefore assumptions that lead battery demand will diminish due to competition from ‘new, more efficient types, such as lithium-ion batteries’ are not realistic. Furthermore replacement of lead-acid batteries by other chemistries that are currently not being recycled would mean the loss of many of the environmental benefits gained by the closed loop system for lead batteries.
Lead is one of the most tightly regulated industrial substances and furthermore the industry is committed to continuous improvement in environmental, health and safety performance. Emissions and exposures are well controlled and in many cases well below regulatory limits set for the protection of health and the environment.
Therefore based on the research published to date, lead use in perovskite cells would be appear to be not just a cost effective means of improving the performance of solar cells, but a highly sustainable one as well.
Notes to editors
The International Lead Association is the worldwide membership body that supports companies involved in the mining, smelting, refining and recycling of lead. The ILA represents the producers of about 3 million tonnes of lead.
With offices in the UK and USA the ILA provides a range of technical, scientific and communications support and is focused on all aspects of the industry’s safe production, use and recycling of lead and helps funds bodies such as the International Lead Management Center and ILZRO.
The Lead REACH Consortium is a stand-alone project of ILA-Europe and its activities are funded by 100 member companies.
ILA also supports the Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium, which manages the research, development and promotion of lead-based batteries for markets such as hybrid electric vehicles, start-stop automotive systems and grid-scale energy storage applications. Visit www.ila-lead.org
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