What’s more, the new electrode allowed Day4 to redesign solar cells to absorb more of the solar spectrum and convert this light into electricity more efficiently. Solar cells comprise two layers of silicon. For light to be converted into electricity, it has to pass through the first layer and reach the second. The thinner the top layer, the more light reaches the second layer to be converted into electricity. In a conventional cell, the silver lines are deposited and then heated to high temperatures, which causes the metal to diffuse into the silicon. The top layer must be thick enough that the silver does not diffuse through it and create a short circuit between the layers of the solar cell. By replacing the large bus bars with the new electrode, Day4 was able to make the top layer of the solar cells thinner, increasing the amount of light that can be converted into electricity. Also, since the silver can damage the silicon, replacing it with the new electrode increases the solar cell’s power output.
The technology “sounds pretty exciting,” says Travis Bradford, a solar-industry analyst with the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, an energy research firm based in Cambridge, MA. The question, Bradford says, is whether the company can translate the latest advances from its lab to large-scale production without increasing costs.
Day4 has already started producing solar panels using its new electrode material–though not its new solar-cell designs. The company recently announced that it has the capacity to produce enough solar panels every year to generate 47 megawatts of electricity. These first-generation panels, which use conventional solar cells, have an efficiency of 14.7 percent. The company’s next step is to put its new cell design into production and incorporate these cells into its solar panels, with the goal of improving their efficiency to 17 percent.