The four-year project starts in April. It includes 10 industrial partners and researchers from the universities of Bangor, Bath, Cranfield, Edinburgh, Northumbria and Southampton as well as Imperial College London.

The project is aimed at the "medium to long-term goal" of making solar energy more competitive and sustainable.

"The market potential for photovoltaics is huge," says principal investigator Ken Durose from Durham University. "But the unavailability of cheap devices is holding up this market. We are looking into new technologies and materials because many of the materials that are successful today will be unsustainable when the mass market comes."

The consortium will focus its attention on inorganic materials and will look at ways of improving efficiency in current technologies as well as using new materials. Durose told environmentalresearchweb: "Each university partner has its strengths. For example: one group of researchers is looking at improving the sensitivity of silicon by coating it with a light-sensitive dye; another is investigating the development of thin-layer cells using cadmium telluride; copper indium diselenide (CuInSe2) is another material under investigation; and others are looking into the nano-texturing of a cell's surface as an alternative to anti-reflective coatings."

For large-scale photovoltaics manufacture, materials costs dominate and, together with module efficiency, determine the cost per kW peak. A closely related issue is sustainability. For example, the metal indium is a key component in photovoltaics, but is rare and expensive (it cost $660/kg in 2007). "Reducing the thickness of semiconductor by 1 micron in 10% efficient cells with a peak generating capacity of 1 GW would save 50 tonnes of material," says Durose.