Researchers at the UK’s Swansea University, working with Tata Steel Europe, have won significant financial backing for research and development of a photovoltaic coating for steel that is reported to offer potential for significant energy generation.
The work is being led by David Worsley of the Materials Research Centre at the university’s School of Engineering. The objective: painting solar cells onto the flexible steel surfaces commonly used for cladding buildings.
“We have been collaborating with the steel industry for decades,” Worsely says in a university announcement on the research program, “but have tended to focus our attention on improving the long-term durability and corrosion resistance of the steel. We haven't really paid much attention to how we can make the outside of the steel capable of doing something other than looking good.
“One of our engineering doctorate students was researching how sunlight interacts with paint and degrades it, which led to us developing a new photovoltaic method of capturing solar energy."
The British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Technology Strategy Board announced a £9.5 million award to an academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University for continued research on high-tech coated products.
The project, which with partner contributions is being funded by a total of £20 million, is called SPECIFIC (the Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings), with Tata Steel Europe as the lead industrial partner in this initiative.
The consortium also includes a number of other internationally recognized academic and industrial institutions. Located in South Wales, SPECIFIC aims to develop a portfolio of products that will turn buildings into power stations and generate more than one-third of the UK’s requirement for renewable energy by 2020. The industrial partners include BASF, Beckers, AkzoNobel, Pilkington, Johnson Matthey, and Dyesol.
Uday Chaturvedi, the chief technology officer for Tata Steel Europe, said the project “is a major example of the company’s strategy to exploit our technical capabilities to deliver superior value for our customers and stakeholders.
“Renewable energy represents a significant growth area for the company and one where Tata Steel can lead the industry, whilst at the same time delivering significant benefits to society in terms of energy generation and CO2 reduction,” Chaturvedi said.
Unlike conventional solar cells, the materials being developed at Swansea are more efficient at capturing low-light radiation, meaning that they are better suited to the British climate, Swansea University said.
“Paint is applied to steel when it is passed through rollers during the manufacturing process, and it is hoped that the same approach can be used to build up layers of the solar cell system,” the university said. “The researchers' aim is to produce cells that can be painted onto a flexible steel surface at a rate of 30 to 40 square meters a minute.”
In the university’s description of the project, Worsley said he believes the potential for the product is immense. “Corus Colours (now Tata Steel Colors) produces around 100 million square meters of steel building cladding a year. If this was treated with the photovoltaic material, and assuming a conservative 5% energy conversion rate, then we could be looking at generating 4,500 gigawatts of electricity through the solar cells annually. That’s the equivalent output of roughly 50 wind farms."
The university said Worsley planned to work closely with Tata Steel Europe to research practical, cost-efficient methods of mounting the system on steel structures, with a view to the eventual commercialization of the product.
“This project is a superb example of the value of collaboration between universities and industry,” Worsley said.
Peter Strikwerda, managing director of the Tata Steel Colors business, said SPECIFIC is the business’s fourth multimillion-pound collaboration in renewable energy, which includes the Photo-voltaic Accelerator Facility and the Sustainable Building Envelope Centre at the company’s Shotton site in North Wales. “SPECIFIC will significantly increase the speed with which we can bring great research ideas to market,” he said.
SPECIFIC will be led by Kevin Bygate, well known for his work on the leading edge of new technology development in the precoated steel and coatings areas.
“I am convinced that we can deliver coated products that will revolutionize the way the roofs and walls of buildings are used,” he said. “SPECIFIC represents a groundbreaking initiative for the industries involved and an opportunity to create significant economic value.”
Tata Steel Group, based in India, is one of the world’s top 10 steel producers with annual crude steel capacity of more than 28 million metric tons. Tata Steel Europe Ltd. (formerly Corus) is Europe's second-largest steel producer.
More information: SPECIFIC research grant.