National Renewable Energy Lab helps improve solar cell manufacturing, lower costs
The stunning growth of the solar industry in recent years has relied in equal parts on plummeting costs and rapidly rising efficiency in photovoltaic cells. Technology Review reports that a new manufacturing process being developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory could help in both areas.
Located in Golden, Colorado, the NREL has played an active role in developing new solar power technologies for decades. It helped to refine the process by which silicon, the material used in the most common form of solar panel, is heated above 1,000 degrees Celsius in order to form it into a solar cell.
This process proves incredibly costly in terms of money, time and energy. The last represents a particular problem, given the benefits solar power is intended to have in saving energy.
However, the NREL has helped to create a new process that could dramatically improve the energy efficiency of manufacturing solar cells, using light in heavily insulated reflective chambers to heat up the solar panels.
"With all solar cells, optics has a big advantage because solar cells are designed to absorb light very efficiently," NREL principal engineer Bhushan Sopori said in a statement. "You can do a lot of things. You can heat it very fast and tailor its temperature profile so it's almost perfectly uniform."
Aside form reducing energy costs by as much as 50 percent, this also helps to purify the silicon, potentially increasing efficiency by as much as 4 percentage points, dramatically improving their performance.