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DuPont Inks a Deal to Improve Solar Cells

In acquiring Innovalight, DuPont will expand its solar business and develop new ways to make solar cells.

DuPont just bought Innovalight, a company that makes silicon ink that increases the efficiency of certain types of solar cells. The acquisition will help DuPont double the size of its $1 billion solar materials business and enable it to develop ways to make cheaper, highly efficient solar cells.

Power ink: Innovalight makes a black ink of suspended silicon nanoparticles.

DuPont is already one of the largest suppliers of solar panel materials, selling products including the silver paste used to make electrical contacts on solar cells, and polymers and resins for sealing solar cells against the elements.

Innovalight manufactures silicon inks that can increase a cell’s efficiency from about 18 percent to 19 percent, a significant improvement in the solar industry. Printing the inks in patterns on the surface of a silicon solar cell helps the cell absorb more light. Innovalight also licenses a manufacturing platform for applying the inks to solar cells, a technology that has been licensed by several Chinese solar cell makers, including JA Solar.

Innovalight was originally founded with the intention of printing entire solar cells using its ink, but the company found it difficult to compete with Chinese solar panel makers, which have come to dominate production worldwide in recent years. Now Innovalight’s strategy is to license innovations that can be introduced into existing solar panel manufacturing lines; this offers one way for U.S. companies to succeed in the solar panel industry without competing with Chinese companies.

DuPont Innovalight, as the company is now called, is working to improve its silicon ink technology, making it work better with the silver paste DuPont already produces. It is also developing new applications for the silicon ink.

In a conventional solar cell, electrical contacts on the front block 6 percent to 7 percent of incoming light. A company called Sunpower has developed a method for modifying the properties of silicon that makes it possible to put all of the electrical contacts on the back, which has helped Sunpower make some of the most efficient silicon solar cells on the market. But the process it uses is expensive.

Using silicon ink to modify silicon cells to allow for back contacts would be much cheaper, says Rob Cockerill, business manager of Dupont Innovalight. He says the ink could also be used to reduce defects that trap electric charges on the back surface of solar cells, increasing solar efficiency by another 1 percent.

Such new applications, along with Innovalight’s existing business, could help DuPont reach its goal of $2 billion in solar revenue by 2014, Cockerill says.

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