Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thin film solar cells

The high cost of crystalline silicon wafers (they make up 40-50% of the cost of a finished module) has led the industry to look at cheaper materials to make solar cells.

The selected materials are all strong light absorbers and only need to be about 1micron thick, so materials costs are significantly reduced. The most common materials are amorphous silicon (a-Si, still silicon, but in a different form), or the polycrystalline materials: cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium (gallium) diselenide (CIS or CIGS).

Each of these three is amenable to large area deposition (on to substrates of about 1 meter dimensions) and hence high volume manufacturing. The thin film semiconductor layers are deposited on to either coated glass or stainless steel sheet.

The semiconductor junctions are formed in different ways, either as a p-i-n device in amorphous silicon, or as a hetero-junction (e.g. with a thin cadmium sulphide layer) for CdTe and CIS. A transparent conducting oxide layer (such as tin oxide) forms the front electrical contact of the cell, and a metal layer forms the rear contact.

Thin film technologies are all complex. They have taken at least twenty years, supported in some cases by major corporations, to get from the stage of promising research (about 8% efficiency at 1cm2 scale) to the first manufacturing plants producing early product.

Amorphous silicon is the most well developed of the thin film technologies. In its simplest form, the cell structure has a single sequence of p-i-n layers. Such cells suffer from significant degradation in their power output (in the range 15-35%) when exposed to the sun.

The mechanism of degradation is called the Staebler-Wronski Effect, after its discoverers. Better stability requires the use of a thinner layers in order to increase the electric field strength across the material. However, this reduces light absorption and hence cell efficiency.
his has led the industry to develop tandem and even triple layer devices that contain p-i-n cells stacked one on top of the other. In the cell at the base of the structure, the a-Si is sometimes alloyed with germanium to reduce its band gap and further improve light absorption. All this added complexity has a downside though; the processes are more complex and process yields are likely to be lower.

In order to build up a practically useful voltage from thin film cells, their manufacture usually includes a laser scribing sequence that enables the front and back of adjacent cells to be directly interconnected in series, with no need for further solder connection between cells.

As before, thin film cells are laminated to produce a weather resistant and environmentally robust module. Although they are less efficient (production modules range from 5 to 8%), thin films are potentially cheaper than c-Si because of their lower materials costs and larger substrate size.

However, some thin film materials have shown degradation of performance over time and stabilized efficiencies can be 15-35% lower than initial values. Many thin film technologies have demonstrated best cell efficiencies at research scale above 13%, and best prototype module efficiencies above 10%. The technology that is most successful in achieving low manufacturing costs in the long run is likely to be the one that can deliver the highest stable efficiencies (probably at least 10%) with the highest process yields.

Amorphous silicon is the most well-developed thin film technology to-date and has an interesting avenue of further development through the use of "microcrystalline" silicon which seeks to combine the stable high efficiencies of crystalline Si technology with the simpler and cheaper large area deposition technology of amorphous silicon.

However, conventional c-Si manufacturing technology has continued its steady improvement year by year and its production costs are still falling too.

The emerging thin film technologies are starting to make significant in-roads in to grid connect markets, particularly in Germany, but crystalline technologies still dominate the market. Thin films have long held a niche position in low power (<50W) and consumer electronics applications, and may offer particular design options for building integrated applications.

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