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Spain Forges Ahead with Low Cost Solar Research

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IREC launches SCALENANO project for low cost solar powerDespite its economic travails, Spain has continued to ramp up its position as a global solar power leader. In the latest development, the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research (IREC) has announced that it will undertake a three-year research project aimed at producing low cost solar cells using a new approach previously developed by IBM, which uses common substances known as kesterites like zinc, iron and tin rather than rare (and expensive) elements like indium.

IBM pushes low cost solar power

The use of kesterite materials to produce low cost thin-film solar cells has already been the subject of intensive research by IBM. Like Facebook, Google and other tech companies, IBM is becoming heavily invested in solar power, with the added advantage of leveraging its microprocessor engineering experience to develop new products.

Though less efficient than conventional silicon solar cells, thin-film technology has the potential to provide cost savings and a greater range of applications.

In 2010, IBM announced that it had developed thin film solar cells using the readily available elements zinc, copper, tin, and selenium.

The new cell achieved a conversion efficiency of 9.6 percent, a vast improvement over previous attempts at using low cost materials.

More importantly, the new cell nudged into the efficiency range of more expensive indium and cadmium based cells, which at the time had reached 9 to 11 percent.

To top it off, IBM designed its cell to be produced through a process compatible with high volume, low cost fabrication methods including printing, spraying or dipping. Those processes eliminate the need for the vacuum equipment used in conventional thin film production, which is far more expensive.

IREC and low cost solar cells

IREC’s new project, called SCALENANO, refers to the use of nanoparticles in a liquid, which enables the use of printing and other low-cost manufacturing processes.

The project’s initial goal is to lower the cost of solar cells by demonstrating that indium-based cells (called CIGS, for copper indium gallium diselenide) can be manufactured using low cost printing processes.

Ultimately, the project aims to build on IBM’s research and demonstrate the commercial viability of printable solar cells based on kesterites.

The goal is a promising one, as little seems to have changed since 2010. According to IREC:

“…research-level CIGS cells have been shown to have an efficiency of more than 20%. But in commercial production the story is different: even the most advanced CIGS cells today have a maximum efficiency of only around 13%, and must be produced using costly vacuum equipment.”

In addition to academic partners from the UK, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Switzerland and France, the projects commercial partners include Merck, IMPT (a materials deposition company based in the UK), the Hungarian metrology firm Semilab and NEXCIS. NEXCIS, a startup in the CIGS field, is a French company with connections to the state-owned energy company EDF.

Image: Beryl-Kesteriteby Robert Lavinsky via

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

(note: “Robert “Rob” Lavinsky, PhD (view his biography on donated his complete picture database on, as well as all his pictures from his own homepage (collected in several galleries respectively alphabetically sorted by mineral name).


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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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