Clean Power

Published on September 13th, 2011 | by Andrew


3D Solar’s 3-D Solar Cell Could Change the Economics of Solar Power

September 13th, 2011 by  

Santa Barbara’s Solar3D Inc. announced that it’s completed the design and is on track to complete a prototype of a “super-efficient” 3-D solar cell by the end of 2011. Holding out the promise of substantially increasing solar cell conversion efficiencies, the company believes its 3-D solar cell design “will dramatically change the economics of solar energy.”

The solar cell’s three-dimensional design traps sunlight “inside micro-photovoltaic (PV) structures, where photons bounce around until they are converted into electrons,” the company explains. The 3-D structure significantly reduces electron loss, which hinders 2-D solar cells’ conversion efficiencies. The idea for the design was inspired by light management techniques used in fiber optic devices.

“The completion of our prototype design is a key milestone toward bringing our next generation solar cell to market. It is taken our team a year of intensive research, development, and simulation. When complete, the production of this solar cell will transform the industry and the way consumers think about solar power and its applications,” CEO Jim Nelson said in a press release.

Solar3D in May announced that it had completed all the 3-D solar cell’s design elements, and had made adjustments making it better suited for mass manufacturing.

“Our objective is to make solar power affordable and available to the world. The development our new solar cell technology will allow the solar industry to generate power on an economically competitive basis in addition to its other advantages over traditionally-sourced power,” Nelson added. “Our manufacturing-oriented engineers are creating a product that is not only much more efficient but relatively inexpensive to produce in mass quantities.”

“By substantially increasing efficiency and retaining a low production cost, we will be able to contribute significantly to the industry’s pursuit of the SunShot initiative laid out by Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, to bring the cost of solar electricity to grid parity.”


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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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  • Everyone please keep up on this as it is good for all we need another way to do things before it is to late ,

  • Jon_K

    Amplifying. Why are they a company? Can you guys in this business explain it to me? I’ve spent decades in Silicon Valley high tech and in that world something at this stage (just completing the design of a prototype) is a research project in a university or industrial lab, not a company carrying around all those costs and expectations.

    I’m not being sarcastic. I really don’t understand it. Is it high NRE costs that force a big bet early just to get enough capital to try an idea? Is it an attempt to grab investor and maybe government money by presenting a bigger profile — product company not research project? Is it just bravery?

    • Anonymous

      I’m not so sure that it’s uncommon for something that looks highly promising to be spun off as a separate business from a university lab these days.

      By getting out of the university lab early the primary investigators end up giving the U a smaller license fee and maximize their returns.

      If this comes from some of the research which I was reading about several months back, it was working really well at the lab level and scaling up was not seen as problematic.

      It seems like some of the battery technology developed at MIT came out to a private company very early.

  • Jon_K

    They are announcing the completion of a prototype design. This isn’t even the completion of a prototype or product design complete let alone the start production. In other words, this is early, early, early.

    The only thing wrong with this announcement is the word “will” which in this context should be translated to “may, that is if everything we’ve thought of goes right and there aren’t too many surprises, and we don’t run out of money. Come back in a couple of years to see how it’s going.”

  • Their homepage doesn’t say anything about efficiencies apart from a remark about multi-junction cells going above 50% efficiency in concentrating systems.

    Since these are already above 40%, this 3D technology may only give a 20-30% boost to the cell. Nice, but not really disruptive.

    Moreover, their technology looks complex, so I believe only expensive concentrating cells will benefit from it (where the price can absorve expensive additional process steps).

    I hope they prove me wrong but this doesn’t seem to be viable for 10% efficient, normal cells.

    • Anonymous

      “Normal” cells are pushing upwards of 20% efficiency. A 25% boost gives us panels that are 25%+ efficient.

      It should cut the cost of an installed system by close to 25% when you allow for panel materials, racking, real estate, cabling and labor. Large systems in sunny locations are now producing for about $0.156/kWh. A 25% drop would bring the price close to $0.117/kWh.

      Systems may already lower than what Solarbuzz lists. Their numbers are averages. There are reports emerging of long term contacts at $0.10/kWh. 25% off of a dime means a grid parity in a lot of places for sunny-hour power.

  • Anonymous

    Solyndra part 2

    It’s about cost, not premium performance at a too-high price.

    What’s the installed cost per watt?

    • Anonymous

      No, this isn’t like Solyndra which was an attempt to get more performance out of then-expensive materials. It’s a way to raise efficiency of the light-converting portions of panels.

      Solyndra, which was funded during the Bush administration, had a decent idea at the time. PV material was quite a bit more expensive than it is now and their system could have paid off in that environment. Then PV prices unexpectedly plummeted and made their approach obsolete.

      It’s like you coming up with a way to plate contacts with less gold and then someone else coming up with a material which was just as good as gold and only a fraction of the price.

      • Anonymous

        In actuality, Solyndra received $535 MILLION from the Obama administration under a program initiated by the Bush administration.

        But again, what it the installed $/watt of the 3D technology.
        That decides its future.

        • Anonymous

          Doc, you might want to read through the timeline on this site.

          Technically the Solyndra loan guarantee was signed about a month after PBO was sworn in, but it was a work in progress being pushed by the Bush administration when the White House was handed over.

          That said, I don’t think either administration deserves blame for Solyndra’s collapse. As the time line makes clear, the unforeseen rapid drop in silicon killed the company.

          • Anonymous


            No agenda there. Perhaps I should quote the equally unbiased Rush Limbaugh site.

            As I said, the issue at Solyndra was cost per kw.
            This same issue can kill ANY technology that doesn’t deliver more KW for LESS $.

            So without knowing the cost for these super-cells, it’s hard to say if they are going to make it.

          • Anonymous

            CT, an agenda? Yes.

            Gross distortion of facts? I haven’t seen it.

            Here’s something else you might want to read.

            Make sure you read down to the bottom where it says…

            “The White House is also saying that while emails have emerged that show that it was putting pressure on the Energy Department to expedite their loan decision on Solyndra, they didn’t attempt to mandate a particular outcome.

            “As the emails indicate, there was interest in when a decision would be made because of its impact on whether an event involving the Vice President could be scheduled for a particular date or not, but the loan guarantee decision was merit-based and made by career staffers at DOE, and the process for this particular loan guarantee began under President Bush,” Schultz said.”


  • Anonymous

    The next step is to integrate the ultracapacitor into the photopanel.

  • I’ve always wondered if this was possible due to the photoelectric effect.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    Wish there were numbers associated with this statement.

    How much per watt? First Solar is approaching $0.50/watt and expects to keep pushing that price down.

    How efficient? This is where this technology could win big. Right now non-panel prices are starting to be big players in installed costs. Racks cost, real estate costs in some installations, wire, shipping and labor add up when there are more panels per array output. Even the amount of encapsulating glass and aluminum frames add.

    Higher efficiency panels cut the cost of almost everything else in the system.

    Put together high efficiency panels and non-reflecting coatings on the surface glass and things really could zoom forward in solar-land….

    • Matthew Peffly

      To true Bob. Dont say “will dramatically change the economics of solar energy.” Unless you can back it up with installed cost per watt. Bottom line the following don’t mean #$%, except for someone to hang a sign on the wall.
      – Highest eff for a PV cell
      – Lowest cost of a Pv cell
      All well and good, and keep up the good work.

      If you want to change the world then what matter is: INSTALLED cost per watt.

      If you have 99% eff and $0.01/watt for the cells but the installed cost is $10.00/watt then it is still just for the research jockeys.

      • John

        99% eff means a 2.5kw system would be less than 3 square meters. That means it could be installed almost anywhere, even somewhere like an apartment balcony. That alone might get you buyers even at $10/watt installed. Or mount a kw on the roof of your electric car so you can realistically recharge it while you’re at work. Heck, you might even be able to make a solar-powered airplane work if you had 99% efficient panels.

        I agree it wouldn’t go everywhere, but installed $/watt is definitely not the ONLY factor you’d need to be a game-changing technology.

        • Matthew Peffly

          Ok so I should have said $100-$1000 per install watt. ALso I said 99% eff at the cell. You forgot that to get that you need to concentrate the sun light by a factor of 1,000,000,000 and split it into it component parts. So the required area goes up a lot.

          My point was that cell level numbers while interesting can hide/confuse as much as the inform. Yes there are other factors, life span of the panel, toxic waste in the process, etc. And there are tiny markets where cost is a very small impact.

          But to change the world, it is install cost. Yes smaller area is good. But would if you could get a 1KW system for $0.50/W install, would a 10KW system that fit in the same space be better? Yes at $1W-$5W, maybe at $10-$20; but what about at $1000W. Most people do not live off the grid, so payback period is king. If you had a system with a payed back in 6-12 months on the installed cost, your phone would not stop ringing.

          Basic research great, step wise improvements in all area great. But a little less hype would be even better. “We think in a couple years we will know if this is better in a meaningful way” does not sound as exciting; but is likely a lot closet to the truth.

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