Pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold, was known by the Romans and it has continued to trick prospectors for the past few hundred years. However, it is now helping Oregon State University researchers find related compounds that offer promising, inexpensive options for solar energy storage. Unlike some solar cells which are made from expensive, toxic or rare elements, these are benign and can be made from some of the Earth’s most plentiful elements.
Iron Pyrite as a Solar Panel Material?
Fool’s gold has little value as far as solar energy is concerned, just as it is worthless compared to the precious metal it so closely resembles. However, for over 25 years, it has been known to have qualities that give it interesting potential, and that potential has given rise to recent research.
According to Douglas Keszler, an OSU chemistry professor, pyrite has interesting properties, but it doesn’t actually work as a solar panel material. During the research phase, scientists took a closer look at iron pyrite and found other iron-heavy materials that have all of the benefits but none of the issues. Keszler says there’s still work to be done in integrating such materials into solar cells, but the outlook is very promising.
Why Pyrite is Interesting to Solar Energy Researchers
Early in the solar energy era, pyrite was interesting because it was plentiful, had an immense capacity to absorb the sun’s energy, and could be used in layers up to 2000 times thinner than silicon. However, it had very limited effectiveness in converting solar energy into usable electricity. In recent studies, researchers found out that under high heat, pyrite decomposes and forms byproducts that prevent the synthesis of electricity. Based on that understanding, researchers found compounds that had pyrite-like capabilities but didn’t decompose, and iron silicon sulfide emerged as a frontrunner.
Finding affordable, eco-friendly and efficient solar energy materials is important to the industry’s future growth, in the view of solar power researchers. These materials are abundant, inexpensive, and have the potential to produce highly efficient solar cells, which is just what the world needs to encourage the wider adoption of solar power.