Earlier this month, many of the world’s leading experts and authorities on climate change and clean energy met at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid to discuss the state of the world and the strategy going forward to combat catastrophic climate change. There the UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the gathered delegates and experts that “By the end of the coming decade we will be on one of two paths. One is the path of surrender, where we have sleep walked past the point of no return, jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone on this planet. Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned? The other option is the path of hope.”
So far, however, there has been a major hurdle in the race to 100% renewable energy–funding. While there are many scientists and research teams toiling tirelessly at finding a silver-bullet solution–or at least something close to that–to making cheap energy as cheap and efficient as fossil fuels, there has been a major shortage of funding as compared to what would realistically be needed to make the sort of global energy transition necessary to leave most of the world’s proven fossil fuels in the ground–a step that would be essential to avoiding catastrophic climate change according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading experts on the subject matter at hand.
Despite the bottleneck, however, there are still some clean energy tech advances being made, and a recent breakthrough in solar could have some seriously disruptive potential. Just this month, a research team at the University of Central Florida published findings that combine Artificial Intelligence and solar power to create a new way to “make generating energy from the sun even more ubiquitous by creating a spray coating that can be used on bridges, houses, or even skyscrapers so they can be energy self-sufficient,” according to reporting from DesignNews.
According to the report from UFC, the team of researchers used “Machine Learning, aka Artificial Intelligence to optimize the materials used to make perovskite solar cells (PSC). The Organic-Inorganic halide perovskites material used in PSC converts photovoltaic power into consumable energy.” This could be big. Getting technical, the University reports that “These perovskites can be processed in solid or liquid state, offering a lot of flexibility. Imagine being able to spray or paint bridges, houses and skyscrapers with the material, which would then capture light, turn it into energy and feed it into the electrical grid. Until now, the solar cell industry has relied on silicon because of its efficiency. But that’s old technology with limits. Using perovskites, however, has one big barrier. They are difficult to make in a usable and stable material. Scientists spend a lot of time trying to find just the right recipe to make them with all the benefits – flexibility, stability, efficiency and low cost. That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.”
AI has the ability to solve the complex problems raised by perovskite cells at a rate that would not otherwise be possible by a team of human scientists, no matter how dogged or intelligent, paving the way for a future in which solar panels would not have to be manufactured, but in which virtually any surface could be converted into an emissions-free solar energy powerhouse by spraying on solar cells. While this is just the first steps toward this potential energy future that sounds straight out of a science fiction novel, it’s a huge breakthrough.
Now, it’s once again a question of funding. Will this promising solar tech receive the kind of investment necessary to keep growing the project toward commercial possibilities with world-saving disruptive potential? Or will it become like the thousands of other promising tech breakthroughs that will languish in small-scale lab experiments as we continue to extract oil, natural gas, and coal?