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The University of Liverpool Podcast Physicist Dr Jon Major teaches magnetic structure and function at the University of Liverpool. In 2014, he generated worldwide media interest when he found that an ingredient used in the production of tofu could also revolutionize the manufacture of solar panels – and was 300 times cheaper. Jon appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss how he made his discovery – and what’s happened since.

5 steps to transformation: adding a tofu ingredient to solar panels

  1. Focus on the need: production, not performance
    When Jon approached his research, he knew there were only two ways to improve the current process for making solar panels: either to make them cheaper, or to make them ‘greener’ in terms of the elements used in their production.

    Increasing the efficiency of solar panels, he says, was never an objective, because performance is already excellent. “The performance level you get now is more than good enough. But I knew that if you could make them slightly cheaper and slightly less difficult to produce, it was going to give a massive improvement.”
  2. Be prepared to look in unusual places
    The standard process for making solar panels uses cadmium chloride, a known carcinogen that Jon describes as “incredibly toxic”.

    “People have this view of solar panels as being a perfectly clean energy source,” he says. “They are in one aspect, in that sunlight comes down and electricity comes out of the panel. But at some point you have to produce the panels, and that can involve some quite hazardous chemicals.”

    The results of Jon’s research could see cadmium chloride replaced with magnesium chloride, a benign salt from sea water – with no detrimental effect on a panel’s efficiency. “The power the panels produce isn’t changed, but you’ve taken away something that’s incredibly hazardous and quite expensive,” he explains.
  3. Just take a chance
    The decision to try magnesium chloride as a replacement for cadmium chloride was not the result of painstaking research. Instead, a casual conversation with a colleague prompted the idea. His colleague had a spare bottle of magnesium chloride and suggested they give it a go.

    Jon says: “I had a quiet Friday afternoon and was rather bored, so I just mixed up some of it [magnesium chloride] and threw it on the back of one of the solar cells. It worked first time.

    “Sometimes in science, it’s random conversations with a friend that get you the big idea… You’ve just got to accept that you can’t always be the uber-brainiac scientist. Sometimes you just have to throw stuff in there and see what happens.”
  4. Do the maths
    Once Jon and his team had established magnesium chloride as a viable alternative to cadmium chloride, they then focused on its potential impact for the commercial production of solar panels.

    The good news was that, in addition to being less toxic, magnesium chloride was significantly less expensive than cadmium chloride. In fact, one gram of magnesium chloride is about 300 times cheaper than one gram of cadmium chloride.

    “All of a sudden,” says Jon, “you’ve got rid of a compound that was costing about three dollars per gram, and swapped it for something that’s going to cost about a cent per gram.”
  5. Accept there will be challenges turning theory into practice
    Despite the high media profile of Jon’s research, and the huge cost savings that could be generated by the widespread adoption of magnesium chloride, it remains unclear how many commercial operators have implemented this new method.

    Instead, Jon has been left frustrated for three years, pointing to a factory’s unwillingness to disrupt production on an already profitable model. He says: “We hadn’t factored in the inertia of these types of production processes.”

    Maintaining the status quo is perceived to be the easier option, he believes. “They don’t have to turn off the production line, they can just keep it running and there’s no R&D time required. From what we understand at the moment, the majority of companies just haven’t been prepared to implement it.”

    However, despite the difficulties he has faced, Jon remains convinced of one thing: it is only a matter of time until solar energy becomes the most viable, cost-effective energy source available to mankind.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

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