A way of manufacturing solar cells much more cheaply than at present has apparently been devised in Norway.
A team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have pioneered an approach that requires less silicon and can tolerate it with more impurities than is currently the standard.
Indeed, it is claimed that the NTNU approach to making solar cells could reduce the amount of silicon per unit area by 90%.
Their processing technique is said to enable manufacture of cells from silicon that is 1,000 times less pure than the current industry standard.
The cost reduction potential may verge on dramatic, so long as efficiency issues can be solved.
Contemporary solar cells have an efficiency of about 18%. The prototype created by NTNU researchers has only reached about 3.6%.
“We’re using less expensive raw materials in smaller amounts, we have fewer production steps and have potentially lower total energy consumption,” say PhD candidate Fredrik Martinsen and Professor Ursula Gibson of the Department of Physics at NTNU.
The NTNU cells comprise silicon fibres coated in glass. A silicon core is inserted into a glass tube about 30mm in diameter.
This is then heated up so that the silicon melts and the glass softens. The tube is stretched out into a thin glass fibre filled with silicon. The process of heating and stretching makes the fibre up to 100 times thinner.
This is the widely accepted industrial method used to produce fibre optic cables. But the NTNU team, working with collaborators at Clemson University in the US, are the first to use silicon-core fibres made this way in solar cells.
The active part of these solar cells is the silicon core, which has a diameter of about 100 micrometres.
This production method also enabled them to solve another problem: traditional solar cells require very pure silicon. The process of manufacturing pure silicon wafers is laborious, energy intensive and expensive.
“We can use relatively dirty silicon, and the purification occurs naturally as part of the process of melting and re-solidifying in fibre form”, says Prof Gibson. “This means that you save energy, and several steps in production.”
It is estimated to take roughly one-third of the energy to produce solar cells with this method compared to the traditional approach of producing silicon wafers.
Prof Gibson has worked for several years to combine purification and solar cell production.
She got the idea for the project after reading an article on silicon core fibres by John Ballato at Clemson University in South Carolina, who is at the forefront of research in fibre optics materials development.
“I saw that the method he described could also be used for solar cells,” she said, “and we developed a key technique at NTNU that improved the fibre quality.”
The new type of solar cells are based on the vertical rod radial-junction design, which is a relatively new approach.
In a traditional solar cell, the journey from where a charge is generated to the surface can be quite long. This means that highly purified silicon is required. But with silicon fibres, there is a junction all the way around the fibre.
The distance from where the charge is generated to where it is captured is quite short. Charge carriers can be captured effectively, even when using impure silicon.
“The vertical rod design still isn’t common in commercial use. Currently, silicon rods are produced using advanced and expensive nano-techniques that are difficult to scale,” Martinsen adds.
“But we’re using tried and true industrial bulk processes, which can make production a lot cheaper.”
As for the poor efficiency performance, Gibson and Martinsen are working on this issue by seeking to improve the design and fabrication processes.
“These are the first solar cells produced this way, using impure silicon. So it isn’t surprising that the power output isn’t very high,” says Martinsen.
“It’s a little unfair to compare our method to conventional solar cells, which have had 40 years to fine-tune the entire production process.
“We’ve had a steep learning curve, but not all the steps of our process are fully developed yet. We’re the first people to show that you can make solar cells this way. The results are published, and the process is set in motion.”
The next step is to refine production, make larger and more effective solar cells, and couple multiple cells together.