This new process cuts fabrication costs for manufacturers up to 80% and reduces material waste by 50%.
Those numbers are beyond description huge.
Solar photovoltaics can generate clean electricity, but until recently one major barrier to greater adoption is the fact that solar panels have been prohibitively expensive.In recent years there have been technological advances in photovoltaic cells’ efficiency, and increased production has brought down their cost. But they remain relatively expensive in large part because fully half of the costly silicon wafers at the heart of solar cells are destroyed during production.Now researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Research (ISE) in Freiburg, Germany, have developed a technology that cuts these losses in half and, at the same time, reduces fabrication energy costs by 80 percent.
Until now, making a solar cell starts with impure silicon that’s liquefied, then purified with the addition of chlorine, creating a material known as chlorosilane. With the addition of hydrogen, chlorosilane becomes highly pure chunks of polysilicon.
To turn polysilicon into the crystals needed for solar cells, the chunks are broken, melted at temperatures exceeding 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, then allowed to grow randomly, sometimes into amorphous and therefore useless silicon, and sometimes into the crystalline form suitable for photovoltaic cells. The usable polysilicon is then molded into huge ingots, then cut with saws into small wafers.Both the high heat used to melt the polysilicon, the random growing of the material and the silicon dust from the sawing cause great waste of an expensive resource. But the ISE method addresses all three causes of the waste, Janz says. The Fraunhofer method heats the chlorosilane under lower heat, about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, then mixes it with hydrogen. Lower heat translates into lower cost.Next, the silicon is vaporized and allowed to flow past a crystalline silicon wafer, which acts as a kind of template that orients the silicon vapor to eventually become crystalline itself. “We don’t let the silicon just grow randomly,” Janz said.This process drastically reduces silicon waste. It’s also economical because the “template” wafer can be reused dozens of times. It also gives the wafers their final shape, eliminating the need for wasteful sawing.
I'm sure it will take a few years for this new process to get spooled up and spread around but this could potentially lead to giant new Solar projects around the world due to the affordability it is going to offer compared to generating electricity by burning fossil fuels or Wind Turbine farms.
The infrastructure maintenance costs versus the cost of just building a new Solar Farm alone will start to look attractive at some point.
Couple this breakthrough with the intensive efforts to improve batteries going on right now and electricity could get downright cheap to provide for places where building generating plants and running electrical wires to is not cost feasible.