'Self healing' solar panels breakthrough

Dennis Schroeder / National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Could space bound solar panels with ‘self-healing’ properties meet some of our energy needs?

The lifespan of perovskite solar panels might be particularly long thanks to their ability to survive bombardment from proton radiation in space.

Solar panels are popular: they can be placed on a house, car or boat, need nothing more than sunlight to generate energy and are safe to use and operate.  

One recent criticism, however, has been their short lifespan. This begs the question, ‘if a solar panel needs to be replaced every 30 years or so, how sustainable is that replacement process, and does this reduce the industry advantage of solar panels in general?'

A recent study from a team of academics including researchers from the School of Physics, The University of Sydney, Australia, suggests that the lifespan of perovskite solar panels in space might be particularly long thanks to their ability to survive or recover from bombardment from proton radiation.


Perovskite panels use a semi-transparent crystalline lead or tin based material to harness radiation with an efficiency of 29.8 per cent - higher than any other solar panel created. These cells seem like a great solution especially as they are cheap to make and simple to use.

The clear roof panels let through light, meanwhile providing shelter from the elements, meanwhile harnessing energy from the sun.

Companies are taking advantage of the semi-transparency of these panels back down here on Earth - notably as roof panels for a wide range of structures including shopping centres and greenhouse fruit farms.

One pilot project is taking place at a farm which is growing raspberries while harnessing energy from solar panels above. This project is a collaboration between Insolight, Romande Energie and Agroscope.

Controlling the light levels is possible, and crops are protected from bad weather, proving that growing vegetables and harnessing energy can be done simultaneously. 


Irrigation and nutrient supply can also be controlled to maximise growth, the study, called ‘Agroscope’ has found.

One new reason to be excited about perovskite solar panels is their ability to ‘self heal' in space - or in an environment where there are no gasses. 

When put into space, proton radiation can cause wear and tear on hardware like solar panels. In order to test how well a material can withstand this radiation, researchers at the University of Sydney constructed a lab simulation of this damage. Ultra-thin solar cell layers were used as test materials. 

Within the cell, the hole transport material (HTM) affected how much damage the materials could take and how well they 'healed'. 


The HTM allows movement of holes in solar cells, allowing them to stay separated, create an electric potential and produce electricity when the sun’s radiation falls on the cell.

It seems that the material used by the testers for the HTM is healed when heated by the sun’s radiation in a vacuum, meaning the sun’s heat can repair the panel material from proton radiation damage.

A significant drawback with perovskite panels was their use of lead, which can be toxic and difficult to dispose of after use. But there are now viable alternatives to the use of lead in the panels - such as tin. 

With these self healing properties, it is likely that these panels can become some of the most useful and efficient solar cells available; their self healing properties a particular advantage for companies wanting to put panels into orbit around the earth to harness the sun's energy on a large scale.

This Author 

Charlotte Sterland is a performer and a climber of rocks and trees. She co-founded Shear Rock, a sustainable textiles and accessories design company that creates products from wool from around the world.

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