Last week you might’ve read about Twin Creeks Technologies and its super-thin solar cells. This company aims to cut the cost of solar cells in half. Ampulse Corporation, another upcoming company in the solar industry, has taken a similar (but still a bit different) approach. By making radical changes to the production process of solar cells, it also claims it can push the prices of solar power to less than $0.50 per watt.
Solar wafers are thin slices of semiconductors made out of silicon, an absolutely essential part of crystalline solar cells. They are accountable for about half the cost of a typical solar panel. If we somehow can reduce the use of wafers, we can drastically influence the cost.
Most of today’s PV cells are made out of silicon, which goes through a series of complex manufacturing processes that have three major drawbacks:
- As much as half of the refined silicon ends up as waste.
- The silicon wafers are thicker than they have to be. We can reduce the thickness of the wafers and still effectively covert sunlight into electricity.
- The process of purifying silicon into wafers is very energy intensive.
Several companies are working, as we speak, on ways to use silicon wafer more efficiently. So, what is so different about Ampulse’s approach?
Fundamentally Different Manufacturing Process
Ampulse aims to reduce the use of costly silicon wafers, while still using silicon as the core material in its thin-film crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV cells.
Its method consists of growing the silicon on an inexpensive, textured metal foil by using a chemical vapor deposition process. This requires less heat than the manufacturing of traditional silicon wafers. Growing silicon straight from the gas phase also results in a much thinner wafer, less than 10 microns. This wafer will still be able to generate electricity in an efficient manner.
Another important aspect of Ampulse’s manufacturing process is that it bypasses the sawing phase, which typically results in a loss of half of the refined silicon.
50 Cents per Watt
Ampulse believes its new manufacturing process will drastically cut the cost of solar power. The CEO of the company, Steven Hane, claims that solar panels using the company’s wafers will cost less then 50 cents per watt, with an efficiency of 15%. This is 30 cents cheaper than today’s typical solar cells, which are around 80 cents per watt.
When will this technology be ready for the market? Ampulse is currently installing a new pilot manufacturing facility in National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Process Development Integration Laboratory (PDIL), but is already planning stages of a full-scale production line.
Ampulse started out just as an idea with a few employees back in 2007. The company now has development agreements with NREL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), as well as almost 1.5 million dollars locked in for further research.
The technology is still in early stages, and we can only speculate if it will pan out or not. On the other hand, Ampulse sure does present promising and intelligent ideas. The solar industry has been through a rough period lately (even in the midst of worldwide record growth), which has stunned the growth of several of the companies involved. Technological breakthroughs that further push down prices of solar power are always in demand. I think Ampulse is definitely on the list of companies to pay attention to in the coming years.
How do you think Ampulse’s technology holds up against Twin Creeks’?
Mathias studies Energy and Environmental Engineering. In his spare time he writes about solar panels and other renewable energy technologies at Energy Informative. Connect with Mathias on Google+ or send him an email.