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Solar Flux: New Process Lets Companies Crank Out PV Panels

Swiss manufacturer Oerlikon aims to sell all the industrial kits needed to start producing cheap, powerful solar cells
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Courtesy of Oerlikon

In just 10 months Taiwanese optical disk manufacturer CMC Magnetics added a new product to its line: thin-film solar cells. The company's subsidiary, Sunwell, now churns out about 10,000 solar panels a month—feeding a surging global demand for the clean electricity source—thanks to technology courtesy of Swiss solar newcomer Oerlikon.

"We're taking … an Intel-inside type of approach," says Chris O'Brien, Oerlikon's marketing chief in North America. "We're able to sell customers a turnkey [assembly] line with guaranteed module performance and throughput at a fixed price."

Now at least half a dozen companies are employing Oerlikon's industrial technology (brand name: micromorph), which produces solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently. Among them, Berlin-based Inventux Technologies, AG, which opened a new solar panel factory yesterday designed to churn out 33 megawatts worth of the improved solar panels a year.

At the heart of the technology is a roughly 15–square foot, 55-pound (1.4–square meter, 25-kilogram) solar panel comprising photovoltaic cells with two thin layers of semiconducting materials: one made of so-called amorphous silicon—a special form of glass whose atoms do not form a crystalline lattice—and one composed of microcrystalline silicon. By pairing the two, the solar cell can absorb more of both the visible and infrared spectrum sunlight that falls on it, thereby producing more electricity.

Oerlikon has also added a layer of zinc oxide (perhaps more familiar as the white sunblock that lifeguards slather onto their noses) to help channel the sunlight—shunting it from inactive areas of the cell to areas ready to make electricity—further enhancing efficiency. Together these technologies make solar cells manufactured the Oerlikon way capable of turning more than 9 percent of absorbed sunlight into electricity—30 percent more than traditional amorphous silicon thin-film cells; the complete panels can produce 125 watts of power.

"There's no material, no element which is rare or toxic in this," adds physicist Johannes Meier, Oerlikon Solar's chief technology officer. "Therefore, this is a technology that can span over the whole world and has the potential to go to several gigawatts [of installed capacity] in volume."

Producing the high-performance solar cells costs about $1.20 per watt of cell capacity, according to O'Brien. "If we can really bring costs down of [photovoltaics (PV)], then you can really bring down the cost of a kilowatt-hour produced by PV and be soon competitive with conventional forms" of power generation, like burning coal, Meier adds. "If that happens, then the market can really explode."

Semiconductor-manufacturing giant Applied Materials of Santa Clara, Calif., sells a similar industrial kit, but Oerlikon's process has been certified by independent consultants, allowing the company to offer guarantees on the quantity and quality of solar cells that can be fabricated by the kit.

Ultimately, the goal is to get cheap, productive solar cells to as many customers as possible. By selling the technology to manufacture such cells to many different companies rather than producing them itself, Oerlikon believes the overall market for solar technology can grow more rapidly—and get even cheaper. Already, Sunwell has redoubled its investment to expand from the capacity to make 40 megawatts of solar cells to 220 megawatts by 2010—and at least 500,000 Oerlikon-inside solar panels have been manufactured worldwide.

And if solar cells can be made that deliver energy at $1 per watt—as Oerlikon and others aim to do—then PV systems will deliver power that costs the same or less than the fossil fuel–burning power plants of today.

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