Clean Power

Published on March 19th, 2012 | by Mathias


New Solar Cell Company Promises Solar Power for $0.50/Watt (Not Twin Creeks)

March 19th, 2012 by  

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:

  1. As much as half of the refined silicon ends up as waste.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

"Ampulse's pilot production line is nearly complete at NREL's PDIL. If the line can make highly efficient solar cells at low cost, the next step will be a full-sized production plant." Credit: Dennis Schroeder

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.

"Engineers and technicians from Ampulse, NREL, and Roth & Rau go over plans for installing parts in the pilot production line for making solar cells via a chemical deposition process." Credit: Dennis Schroeder

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’?

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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About the Author

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.

  • Bfxtech

    200 amp service in your home times 120 volts = 24,000 potential watts into an average house. Central air conditioner is 30 Amps? or 3600 watts.
    So in short to cover your entire home when the sun is out you have to pay $12,000 dollars. Call me when its a dime a watt. Solar has gotten better but its not even close to enough.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Probably isn’t cheap enough for those who don’t know how to do the figuring….

    • Bob_Wallace

      Let’s do the math, shall we?

      In 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,496 kWh. That’s 31.5kWh per day.

      Almost all the ‘lower 48’ gets 4.5 hours or more of usable sunlight. (That’s an annual average, not a daily minimum – for you nit pickers.)

      Based on that you’d need 7kW (7,000W) of panels to produce all the electricity you use each year.

      If we’re talking a future panel price of $0.50/Watt then that’s only $3,500.

      Panels are not the entire cost. While panels have dropped close to $1/Watt there are other costs and those costs are out of control in the US. US average residential installed solar is running around $5.80 (2011) while in Germany they have been able to bring the price down to $2.80 (2011).

      If you lived outside the sunny parts of the US (4.5 solar hours) installing at the US rate would give you electricity at 26.3 cents per kWh which is not a good price. If we could get our installed prices down to what Germany pays your electricity would cost 12.8 cents per kWh.

      Now 12.8 cents might not sound wonderful, but consider that you will have locked in that 12.8 cents for the next 20 years. The price of electricity is likely to increase, at least due to inflation.

      And after that 20 years is over you’re looking at a few decades of free electricity.

      Panels are already pretty good, price-wise.

      No subsidies were used in any of the above envelop scratchings.

      • price of electricity (for those not locked in to a solar rate) is *certain* to improve.

  • b74ck5t4r

    how about bringing down the price of AGM batteries? 🙁

  • Here’s a video where NREL scientists Howard Branz and Chaz Teplin talk more about the technology:

  • mars

    Go nuke.

  • Sure…less than 0.50 US$…it should be great but the problem is that they don’t mention any date!…Easy to talk without mentioning any dates…3 months? 12 Months? 10 years?

  • Imawhiz

    Maybe U.S. manufacturers can win the contest with Chinese manufacturers and start exporting “Cheap” solar panels to China and India. That would be fantastic. Send the first one to Rush Limbaugh and have him epoxy it across his mouth.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Maybe, but I don’t think exporting panels to China is in our future.

      As the prices of panels falls then shipping becomes a bigger part of the total cost. It’s more likely that we will manufacture the panels used here and China will manufacture the panels they install.

      There’s not much low-skilled labor input in solar panels. And the cost of labor is rising in China.

      Panels have already gotten so cheap that the big emphasis is now on the ‘balance of the system’ (BOS).

  • lukealization

    It’s like hard drive capacity… it gets better and better! 😀

    Bring on $0.10 / Watt!

  • jburt56

    Ok but we have to beat back the post-Solyndra nuckleheads that want to go back to the Stone Age.

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