Interview: Dr. W.S. Sampath at CSU has developed new “thin film” solar technology
Thin film has been the holy grail of solar technology: everyone is seeking it, but so far its market penetration is well under 5%, and its use in large-area applications, such as for solar photovoltaic (PV) modules large enough to power buildings, has barely developed. (Thin film light absorbers are about 1 micron thick and are less costly to produce, as compared to the silicon found in traditional solar PV modules, which at around 200 microns thick is still thinner than a human hair.)
So I was very interested to hear that Dr. W. S. Sampath, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University (CSU), has developed a new, more streamlined production process that promises to reduce the cost of thin film even more. The company bringing his product to market is AVA Solar, who received a $3 million solar incubator grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar America Initiative. I spoke to Dr. Sampath by telephone on Friday, and asked him how his technology is different from that of First Solar, currently the market leader.
“The difference is in the manufacturing process. It is much more streamlined and integrated, with fewer production steps, which brings down the manufacturing cost.” Dr. Sampath was careful to note that AVA Solar worked in collaboration with First Solar in developing the production process. “There is a huge demand, so it makes sense to work together.” In other words, when the world is beating a path to your door for a better solar mousetrap, it pays to be open and collaborate to achieve faster, better and cheaper solutions, so as to grow the market much faster.
Dr. Sampath’s process takes ordinary glass and transforms it into solar panels. The process is described in more detail in “The Competitive Edge”, CSU’s newsletter on university innovations:
“A sheet of AVA Solar glass uses 100 times less semiconductor material in the manufacturing process, and produces a new solar panel every two minutes….The cost to the consumer could be as low as $2 per watt, about half the current cost of solar panels, and the cost is competitive with cost of power from the electrical grid in many parts of the world.”
The first stage of production will start early in 2009, with annual production volume estimated at 120MW, or enough energy to provide electricity to 25,000 homes in Chicago, for example. With a production process that is highly scalable, presumably production will ramp up as demand continues to grow. So there you have it: The government provides grants to stimulate research, innovations abound, information is shared, and costs come down. (Now if the government would only help stimulate the demand side, we could grow the solar market even faster.)
I grew lightheaded as I envisioned thousands of unemployed General Motors workers happily at work in solar thin-film factories, and timidly asked Dr. Sampath: “Does this mean we might see our country become a leader in manufacturing again some day?” His answer: “If we can keep ahead in the technology development arena in this country, there is no reason why we can’t keep the manufacturing here. If we can do the R&D here, we can also implement it here.”
Note: AVA expects to produce 120MW of PV modules in 2009, which is over half of the total U.S. PV production in 2006, and about 3% of the total production in that year. Some analysts project that global production will double by 2009. First Solar is currently the largest U.S. PV manufacturer.
Image: Dr. Sampath and a member of his research team. Source: Colorado State University