48 (143) 2021


At the forefront of Photovoltaics 2.0

Olga Malinkiewicz, co-founder and chief technology officer at Saule Technologies, invented a way to make photovoltaic cells based on perovskite crystals, using inkjet printing.
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The BPCC’s Michael Dembinski talks to Dr Malinkiewicz about how the future of solar energy is about to be revolutionised.

How did you first come up with the idea of mass-producing perovskite [a translucent crystal that can generate electricity when light shines on it]? What obstacles did you have to overcome before you could set up a production facility in Poland?
The idea of starting a company with the goal of large-scale production came from my business partners and co-founders of Saule Technologies. Piotr Krych and Artur Kupczunas believed in my ideas and the potential of perovskites. I trusted them entirely on the financial and business aspects, so that I could focus on finding a team to run research and on equipping the lab. Everyone else around us did not believe we could successfully start a high-tech company requiring years of research here, in Poland, but we felt it was the right thing to do. In the end, it was also a very careful business decision – in Poland, we could apply for massive grants from the EU to support innovation in the region.

Most start-ups are struggling in the beginning, when the investment level is very high and there is still no revenue from sales. The critical moment is after the research and development phase, before the product launch. Preparation to start production is extremely costly, and many start-ups, financially exhausted after an expensive R&D phase, cannot overcome this obstacle. This is why this stage is called the ‘valley of death’. There have been some difficult moments, but as we are successfully entering the commercialisation phase, I consider it a big achievement.
Perovskite has the potential to utterly revolutionise construction – applying sheets of translucent perovskite film to the windows of new and existing office buildings opens entirely new horizons for photovoltaic energy. How quickly can Saule Technologies' manufacturing capacity reach the kind of scale that can begin to satisfy the potential demand? Who are Saule Technologies' main competitors globally in the race to scale up perovskite production?

Perovskite-based photovoltaics have been developing much faster than any other solar technology, and that is for a reason. Perovskites are fantastically predisposed for energy-harvesting and are already outperforming traditional silicon cells on lab-scale devices. Producing layers of perovskite solar cells can be solution-based, which means that we can fully print them.

Perovskites can do much more than photovoltaic (PV) glass. Our solar cells are printed on flexible foils, which makes them flexible and lightweight. They are also incredibly versatile for various illumination conditions. This allows completely new applications than we know from traditional silicon PV – it is going to be a revolution.

2021 is a breakthrough year for Saule Technologies, as we are launching the production line and announcing plans of going public on Warsaw’s New Connect market. We regularly release new licensing opportunities for products with perovskite PV integration, and earlier this year, we signed the first contracts with industry leaders. Through the year, we want to get more contracts with big companies, announce new products, and constantly improve our perovskite inks. We will be ready for mass production in 2022.

We are aware of the race to commercialise perovskite solar cells, but it is too early to judge how advanced our competition is. No one else has entered the manufacturing phase, especially in the field of flexible perovskite foils. We are also proud to achieve measurable success – the first contracts for perovskite PV installations have been signed with important industry players. This is a significant accomplishment, even on a global scale.

Now, as we announced our plans to become a publicly traded company, the pace of development can accelerate even more. We are exploring a new opportunity offered by JR Holding and our investor, Columbus Energy. We have started due diligence to do a reverse merger of a shell company Blumerang Investors, quoted on Warsaw’s New Connect market. If successful, it will allow us to go public much faster than through a traditional IPO.
How do you see the prospects for perovskite technology development over the next ten years? Other than cladding windows of office buildings, what other large-scale applications do Saule Technologies foresee for perovskite?
The rapid expansion of perovskite technology is certain. We have already achieved in under ten years levels of efficiency that silicon PV needed decades to reach, and we are still expecting considerable progress. At some point, perovskites will be more efficient than silicon, and this will be the Photovoltaics 2.0, with more possibilities and new applications.

The first area of application is powering IoT (Internet of Things) devices. These small, independent devices that improve our lives, such as sensors, personal electronics, or smart home devices, are constantly connected to the network. Perovskites reach high efficiencies not only in the full sunlight but also in artificial light or shadowed areas, which are typical environments for IoT devices. Our first IoT products are electronic shelf labels (ESL) for shops and warehouses. These solar-powered price tags do not need battery exchange and allow fast and easy price updates.

In parallel, we are developing BAPV (building-applied photovoltaic) applications – modules and accessories that can be attached to existing buildings to improve their energy efficiency. Our product, automatic solar sun blinds, will be soon installed for the first time in a building. We are already producing the first batch of perovskite modules to supply a contract for 100m² photovoltaic sun-blind installation.

Perovskite modules printed on PET foils have a very low weight-to-power ratio compared to traditional silicon PV. This feature allows harvesting energy from the rooftops of old industrial buildings with low load-bearing capacity. Perovskite modules can be easily installed on facades and walls – even indoors. The aesthetic of the modules will be much higher with lighter, tuneable colours and transparency options.

We are receiving much interest from the e-mobility and automotive market. We are also exploring space applications, as they can benefit from the low mass of the solar modules, and perovskites are proven to be resistant to radiation outside of the earth’s atmosphere.

In the future, we want to open many more production sites based on our technology. They will require lower investments and shorter lead times than silicon cell factories. Perovskite solar cells are printed in temperatures under 120 C, and the manufacturing processes have low energy consumption. With such a cost-effective infrastructure, we can revolutionise the approach to manufacturing solar cells. Imagine building temporary production sites located where you need your modules. It can also support the energy independence of low-income countries, offering solar cell facilities that they can afford.
Saule Technologies has teamed up with Columbus – Poland's largest solar-energy solution provider – to speed up the commercialisation of perovskite. What other advantages do you see arising from this partnership?

The investment of Columbus has accelerated our work and allowed us to secure funds necessary for proceeding into the commercialisation phase. Columbus is a perfect partner for Saule Technologies – making the right, bold decisions, they quickly became the leader in the industry and gained business experience that we can now learn from. The company is developing dynamically, looking ahead, and foreseeing the trends in the market of renewable technologies. They support us and motivate us. We are also discussing a few joint projects and initiatives. We have already launched together with Columbus an energy transformation programme for cities and municipalities in innovative financing models, such as PPA (power purchase agreement) that does not require CAPEX.

Nexity is also part of the team with Saule Technologies and Columbus, providing charging solutions for e-vehicles. What is Saule Technologies’ role in electromobility? Can vehicle charging stations be powered by sunlight?

We created our e-mobility product, which can work as a solar carport, scooter port, bus stop, or multiport with mixed functions. We collaborate with Columbus and Nexity to deliver a fully functional product, including the energy management infrastructure. Today, the carport in a city-centre location, cannot be fully charged by the photovoltaics alone, but the efficiencies of solar panels will grow with time. It is a long-term concept that at the moment can reduce the consumption from the electricity mains, power illumination, advertisements, and provide safety in the emergency mode.

Other e-mobility solutions we are considering include a photovoltaic tarpaulin for trucks, or solar yacht sails. We can foresee electric cars covered with perovskite cells, harmoniously integrated with the body. It probably will not be efficient enough to drive a car, but it will significantly extend the time before you need to recharge the battery.

I feel we are standing at the beginning of a new era of the rapid roll-out of green energy, which will happen at an ever-faster pace. Part of this drive will come from the EU's new Multiannual Financial Framework, which will direct some €270 billion into green transformation across Europe. Do you believe this public money will be properly targeted and spent in order to hit global net-zero targets?

We must believe in this energy transformation because there is no other way to secure our planet and humankind’s peaceful future. We can see that people understand this challenge and demand action from the governments. I am rooting for every initiative that can make a positive change.
Glasgow will be hosting the next UN's climate change conference, COP26, in November. Will Saule be taking part? Do you think that the corporate world should be doing more to address climate change issues?

We did not decide to participate, as there has been a lot of doubt if the event will take place or be further postponed. We are in a very intense stage of development of our technology, and the focus of the whole team is dedicated to research and production.

Any entities that hold big funds and power, including corporations, should feel responsible for addressing climate change. The grassroots movements in societies can provide a great impulse, but the companies and governments should be the ones that create new, more sustainable solutions.

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