6 March 2012

New approach aims to slash cost of solar cells

Pilot production line is nearly complete. If the line can make highly efficient solar cells at low cost, the next step will be a full-sized production plant. Credit: Dennis Schroeder
Pilot production line is nearly complete. If the line can make highly efficient solar cells at low cost, the next step will be a full-sized production plant. Credit: Dennis Schroeder
U.S. national laboratories and a start-up company have teamed on a new approach to lower the cost of the finished solar panels, according to NREL News. The process eliminates costly silicon wafers, but still uses silicon as the core material.

Silicon wafers account for almost half the cost of today's solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, so reducing or eliminating wafer costs is essential to bringing prices down.

Current crystalline silicon technology, while high in energy conversion efficiency, involves processes that are complex, wasteful, and energy intensive.

First, half the refined silicon is lost as dust in the wafer-sawing process, driving module costs higher. Second, the wafers produced are much thicker than necessary. To efficiently convert sunlight into electricity, they need only one-tenth the typical thickness.

By using a chemical vapor deposition process to grow the silicon on inexpensive foil, the new process is able to make the solar cells just thick enough to convert most of the solar energy into electricity. No more sawdust - and no more wasting refined silicon materials.

The new process "goes straight from pure silicon-containing gas to high-quality crystal silicon film," said Brent Nelson, who runs NREL's Process Development Integration Laboratory. "The advantage is you can make the wafer just as thin as you need it - 10 microns or less."

"The main thing is that we can grow high-quality silicon layers very fast and without putting much energy into the process. That means the solar cells can turn out much cheaper than the wafer-based cells," said scientists Howard Branz Branz, NREL.

U.S. Department of Energy' National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) developed the technology to grow high-quality silicon. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) developed the metal foil that has the correct crystal structure to support that growth.

Ampulse Corporation is installing a pilot manufacturing line in NREL's Process Development Integration Laboratory, where solar companies test their latest materials and processes.

With knowledge and expertise acquired from the pilot production line, Ampulse plans to design a full-scale production line to accommodate long rolls of metal foil.

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