You might think that most solar cell research is done by physicists. This is partly true – I’m one myself – but the research approach has little in common with work done by particle physicists at the large hadron collider, or cosmological research. Those fields generally revolve around heavy computation and theory work. In other words, a lot of time staring at blackboards.
Solar cell research is really a matter of materials science, which sits somewhere between physics and chemistry. The development of new solar cell technologies or processes is very labour-intensive, and the typical approach is to spend a great deal of time testing the performance of a large number of comparable but slightly altered cell designs. Solar cells are comprised of stacked layers of different materials, and it’s hard to predict what will happen to the performance of the entire structure by changing one component.
If I add something to layer A and it changes, then layers B, C and D on top of it will probably change as well. Similarly, if I change layer C, will I need to change how I made A or B? And what will then happen to D? You can probably get a sense of how hard this would be to predict, and this feeds the curiosity behind much of the innovation in this field.
Think of solar cells like cake. To find out what will happen when you add a novel ingredient, it’s far more reliable to bake it and then sample the final concoction than to try to predict what it will look and taste like before you bake it.
In the end, the food we eat, just like solar cells, is a mix of compounds. While we know capsaicin from chilli, it’s really just an organic compound, which, coincidentally, has particular properties that make it suitable for solar cell processing – as well as for spicing up a fajita.
So, if in the near future you read an article about solar cells improved immeasurably by adding nutmeg or something, trust that it’s been done as a result of informed curiosity of the likely effect, rather than boredom and a looming best-before date.
Source: BBC Future Planet