In the past few weeks, solar power has gained attention due to its potential as a significant new source of demand for silver. Now, new findings  from a research team at Switzerland's University of Basel indicate that cobalt may also be set to see demand from that sector. 

The team, headed by Ed Constable and Catherine Housecroft, both chemists at Basel, has succeeded in replacing the iodine used in copper-based dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs) with cobalt, according to Nanowerk. The discovery is expected to eventually enable the manufacturing of cheaper, more environmentally friendly solar cells.

Dye-sensitized solar cells

As CleanTechnica explains, DSSCs are a type of solar cell "that works by capturing sunlight via a colored dye, which then, through an electron transfer process, produces electrical current. Electrolytes function as the electron transport agents."

Normally, iodine and iodide are the electrolytes, but, as mentioned, the Basel chemists have been able to replace those materials with a cobalt compound.

Putting DSSC technology in context, Dexter Johnson of IEEE states that it "produces a photovoltaic cell that is relatively inexpensive compared to its silicon cousins," though it "cannot produce the same level of energy conversion efficiency as silicon solar cells."

B enefits of cobalt

There are two main benefits to using cobalt, not iodine, in DSSCs, the Basel researchers believe.

The first is that compared to iodine, cobalt is much more abundant. Johnson quotes Project Officer Biljana Bozic-Weber as saying, "[i]odine is a rare element, only present at a level of 450 parts per billion in the Earth, whereas cobalt is 50 times more abundant." As a result, cobalt is a much more sustainable material to use.

Secondly, using cobalt rather than iodine should improve the lifespan of DSSCs, which, Johnson notes, "have been criticized for their short lifespans." That's because in copper-based DSSCs, copper and iodine react, creating copper iodide, which degrades the DSSC.

What's next?

As is often the case with new technology, there is still much work to be done before the Basel researchers' work will see commercialization outside niche markets.

However, the team thinks that through a new approach called molecular systems engineering, which Constable describes as integrating and optimizing "all molecular and material components of a system ... to approach new levels of sophistication in nanoscale machinery," they will be able to gradually move forward.


Securities Disclosure: I, Charlotte McLeod, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article. 

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Cheaper, More Sustainable Solar Cells from Cobalt from Cobalt Investing News