Scientists in Canada have used commonplace elements to create a cheap solar PV material in the form of a nanoparticle-based "ink."

The new technology, developed by engineers and scientists from the University of Alberta, is the culmination of four years of research and promises to provide a major boost to the use of solar power by making photovoltaic cells far more affordable and easy to manufacture.

Jillian Buriak, a professor and senior research officer from the National Institute of Nanotechnology on the University of Alberta campus, led a team of researchers in the development of the ink made from zinc and phosphorus nanoparticles, which are capable of both absorbing light and conducting electricity.

The scientists devised a synthetic method for the production of zinc phosphide nano-crystals, which are subsequently dissolved into a liquid ink. This red-coloured ink can subsequently be processed to create a thin film which possesses photovoltaic properties.

The liquid form of the nanoparticle ink means mass manufacturing methods can be applied to the production of solar cells, using techniques such as spray coating or roll-to-roll printing.

“Nanoparticle-based ‘inks’ could be used to literally paint or print solar cells or precise compositions,” said Buriak in a statement.

The use of zinc and phosphorus as the primary ingredients of the ink confers a pivotal economic advantage compared to other thin films, given the relative abundance of these elements in the earth’s crust and their ensuing low cost.

Buriak says the low cost and ease of production will be vital to lifting solar power usage in a global market where power demand is expected to sharply increase.

“Half the world already lives off the grid, and with demand for electrical power expected to double by the year 2050, it is important that renewable energy sources like solar power are made more affordable by lowering the costs of manufacturing,” he said.

Buriak’s team is currently conducting further experiments with the ink, including use of the nanoparticle-based ink to create large solar cells via spray-coating.

The team has already applied for a provisional patent for the technology and has obtained funding to further its efforts to manufacture the material on a greater scale.