Innovative low-cost materials could herald a new era for solar energy, researchers in Northern Ireland claimed.
A University of Ulster (UU) project exploring the use of previously unheralded microscopic matter in solar panels received a £700,000 boost from a UK-wide funding body.
UU's proposal was ranked first out of 21 submissions for photovoltaic research money.
Principal investigator Dr Davide Mariotti, said: "Current solar cell technologies are still relatively expensive with limited efficiencies. The proposed project will bring together advanced and novel materials with unique properties that can overcome these limitations.
"The exploration and development of photovoltaic or solar technology would be a major breakthrough for photovoltaics, for the national energy strategy and could provide a headstart for the UK's emerging solar energy industry."
Funding for the work was provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The University of Ulster said the award could prompt a new era for solar energy harvesting using low-cost, non-degradable, non-toxic, environmentally-friendly materials. It is collaborating with the University of St Andrews in Scotland during the three-year project.
Dr Mariotti added: "The deployment of next generation,low-cost and high-efficiency solar cells is a multi-faceted challenge requiring a multi-disciplinary effort. Our aim is to open up novel and transformative approaches based on nanotechnology which also rely on advanced plasma processing."
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has announced schools, businesses and farm buildings will no longer need planning permission for solar panels. The change involves microgeneration equipment, including panels which generate electricity or heat from sunlight. It will begin on April 30 and follows similar measures previously introduced for the installation of solar panels on homes.
Mr Attwood said: "This is a good boost for a cleaner, greener Northern Ireland. By removing red tape around having to make a planning application, schools, businesses and farms will be able to enjoy the benefits of solar energy much more easily. For them it will mean cheaper, greener, cleaner energy. A win for consumers and a win for the environment."