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New Approach Aims to Slash Cost of Solar Cells

Solar-powered electricity prices could soon approach those of power from coal or natural gas thanks to collaborative research with solar start-up Ampulse Corporation at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

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. A typical 2-meter boule of silicon loses as many as 6,000 potential wafers during sawing. Second, the wafers produced are much thicker than necessary. To efficiently convert sunlight into electricity, they need only one-tenth the typical thickness.

NREL, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Ampulse have teamed on an approach to eliminate this waste and dramatically lower the cost of the finished solar panels. The aim is to create a less expensive alternative to wafer-based crystalline silicon solar cells.

By using a chemical vapor deposition process to grow the silicon on inexpensive foil, Ampulse 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.


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