Powered by $77 million in new investment, startup Heliovolt, based in Austin, TX, will build a factory next year for mass-producing a new type of solar cell that could, in much of the United States, make solar electricity as cheap as electricity from the grid. The company will be scaling up a new manufacturing technique that could produce high-performance thin-film solar cells more reliably than other methods.
Heliovolt is one of several startups developing a type of thin-film solar cell that converts light into electricity with a micrometers-thick layer of a copper-indium-gallium selenide (CIGS) semiconductor. Thin-film solar cells are attractive because they could produce electricity cheaper than conventional silicon solar cells. Although thin-film cells produce less electricity per square meter than conventional silicon solar cells do, they make up for this by using orders of magnitude less active material per square meter. This can result in significant savings. For example, generating one watt of electricity requires about 80 cents’ worth of silicon, but it only requires a penny’s worth of a semiconductor used in a thin-film cell, says John Benner, who manages electronic materials for photovoltaics research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, CO. (Heliovolt is working with NREL to further develop its cells.)
The challenge has been to reliably make thin-film solar cells at a large scale. In the lab, CIGS solar cells have shown the highest efficiency of any thin-film cell (19.5 percent), exceeding that of some types of silicon solar panels made today. But, while no one expects to reach this level of efficiency in mass-produced cells, it has proved difficult to reliably make them with even a minimum level of efficiency needed to compete with other types of solar cells.
Heliovolt’s new manufacturing method, however, could prove more reliable than others, Benner says, by providing more control over the composition of the semiconductor film.
In a typical process, the precursor materials are printed or sputtered onto a surface, where they combine to form the final semiconductor material. This doesn’t provide much control over the chemistry and microscopic structure of the material, he says. In particular, it can allow atoms of selenium, a volatile element, to escape, altering the electronic properties of the material. Having too few selenium atoms can “kill a cell,” says Heliovolt’s CEO, Billy Stanbery. In the Heliovolt process, which Stanbery developed, the semiconductor is made in two steps. First, films of cadmium selenide and indium selenide, which are relatively easy to make reliably, are deposited on two flat plates. Then these plates are brought together and, through a combination of electromagnetic attraction and heat, fused together. Benner says that this process keeps the selenium from escaping, since it’s trapped between the two plates.