A new development in the manufacturing of solar panels could not only drive down costs, but also substantially reduce the energy intensive process itself.
The current state of photovoltaic panels is such that silicon wafers make up nearly half of the market. While they’re high functioning, the energy that goes into creating silicon wafers is inherently wasteful. When cutting the silicon wafers, a considerable amount of the refined silicon is reduced to dust and lost, which drives the cost of the product up.
Enter the Ampulse Corporation. Through a partnership with the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Ampulse is creating a less expensive alternative to the wafer silicon solar cells. The solution: chemical vapor deposition.
By using this process, the company can grow the silicon on a cheap foil while producing extremely thin cells capable of functioning at very high levels.
According to Brent Nelson, the director of the Process Development Integration Laboratory (PDIL), the Ampulse process “goes straight from pure silicon-containing gas to high quality silicon film. The advantage is you can make the wafer as thin as you need it—10 microns or less.”
This new process starts out much like the old way. Carbon and heat are added to sand to produce metallurgical-grade silicon. The silicon is then converted into trichlorosilane or silane gas. Whereas the old way calls for the gas to be converted into a feedstock and stripped down into the silicon, Ampulse’s process takes the gas and allows it to grow on the foil substrate directly, thus cutting manufacturing time and energy by a considerable amount.
Ampulse has been given space at NREL’s PDIL where plans are being made to build a full-scale production line for this new process. The company has also received $900,000 from the DOE’s Technology and Commercialization and Deployment funds at NREL. Through all of this, Ampulse is making the DOE’s goal of lowering the cost of solar energy to $1 per watt installed more and more feasible.