With the phenomenon of global warming reaching alarming proportions, there has been much concern over the emanation of harmful greenhouse gases from the usage of fossil fuels. This has heightened the focus on developing renewable sources of energy and photovoltaics (PV), which draw their energy from the sun, and represent one of the cleanest and most easily renewable sources of energy. In areas such as grid power and power for portable devices, photovoltaics are considered a leading technology and will continue to be the focus of many a researcher in the next 10 to 20 years.
While silicon solar cells and thin film solar cells have dominated the solar cell industry, a third generation of solar cells made from nanomaterials look poised to foster tremendous advancements in the industry. Nanomaterials, while displaying superior properties such as high strength and flexibility can also have their orientation tuned to trap energy more efficiently than conventional materials.
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“Nanomaterials and quantum dot based solar cells are expected to create a splash in the PV industry, if their powerful quantum effects are used effectively to tap the largely unexplored infrared region of the solar spectrum,” notes Technical Insights Research Analyst Vijay Shankar Murthy, “Innovalight’s new silicon ink technology is a step in this direction and could herald the foray of nanomaterials based solar cells.”
Nevertheless, solar cells based on nanomaterials, are yet in their inception stage and silicon and thin film photovoltaic technologies are likely to remain dominant over the next decade. Emerging silicon photovoltaic technologies include the FLATCON technology being developed by Concentrix Solar and the Emitter-Wrap Through (EWT) solar cells being developed by Advent Solar. While FLATCON uses Fresnel lens to efficiently concentrate light on the solar cell, and thereby finds potential applications in grid networks for remote locations, the EWT solar cell is basically a back contact solar cell that achieves up to 22 percent efficiency in power conversion.
On the thin film photovoltaics front, copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) thin films are the preferred choice of many manufacturers. This is largely on account of their higher efficiency and greater environment friendliness when compared to the competitor, cadmium-telluride films. California-based Miasolé Corporation’s novel CIGS modules and Austin, Texas-based Heliovolt’s field assisted simultaneous synthesis and transfer (FASST) process that produces cost-effective yet efficient solar cell modules are the noteworthy innovations anticipated in the future.
With respect to the major challenges, manufacturers of PV technologies are likely to be constrained by the high costs associated with PV technologies. Manufacturing solar cells involves the use of sophisticated electronic wafer manufacturing techniques and electronic design automation tools. Employing these techniques on a large scale makes the process capital intensive and hence contributes significantly to the cost per watt of electricity produced.
“This apart, present efficiency levels of solar cells do favor their full-scale commercial use,” says Murthy. “Also, solar cells face formidable competition from other clean technologies such as fuel cells, wind turbines, and microturbines, in their respective areas of application such as grid power, portable power, and so on.”
In order to overcome these restraints, it is important that solar cell manufacturers optimize their production capabilities to lower costs, while at the same time increasing the efficiency of individual solar cells and modules. Since the cost of manufacturing silicon and thin film photovoltaics is quite high, manufacturers have to find ways of eliminating a few unnecessary steps in the process, in order to make the final product cost effective.
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Photovoltaics: Global Developments