Clean Power DOE grants $12 million for record breaking solar cell efficiency

Published on January 26th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Race To Break Solar Cell Efficiency Record Heats Up With New $12 Million Grant

January 26th, 2013 by  

The U.S. Department of Energy has just added another $12 million to an existing $35.8 million grant program aimed at producing the next generation of record-breaking solar cells that get closer to the theoretical maximum efficiency of about 30 percent. That goalpost was established back in 1961 and solar researchers have been chasing it ever since, but according to DOE a “sizable gap” still separates the current state of the technology from its best potential.

The grant program, called Foundational Program to Advance Cell Efficiency II (FPACEII) will cover a range of technologies including silicon-based and thin film solar cells.

DOE grants $12 million for record breaking solar cell efficiency

The Limits of Solar Cell Efficiency

If you’re new to this topic and googling around, you’re going to see all kinds of numbers being tossed about, so it’s helpful to keep in mind that the FPACE grant program is focused on improving the ability of single-junction solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity.

Loosely speaking, single-junction refers to a solar cell made from one layer of material, typically silicon. Multi-junction cells are made with layers of different materials. They can achieve conversion efficiencies up in the 80 percent range but generally involve greater costs.

The Energy Department’s figure of “about 30 percent” for maximum conversion efficiency refers to silicon solar cells. Overall, the researchers who developed the theory (William Shockley and Hans Queisser) describe a best-case scenario of 33.7 percent.

Solar Cell Efficiency and the SunShot Initiative

FPACE II is part of President Obama’s SunShot initiative, which launched in 2011 with the aim of funding critical research to bring the cost of solar power down to parity with fossil fuels.

Aside from improving the efficiency of solar cells, SunShot is also designed to keep the U.S. in the vanguard of the international race to bring down the “soft costs” of solar power.

Soft costs include permits, inspections, installation and grid connections, which can account for about half the final cost of a typical installation. SunShot’s efforts in this area include  developing models for affordable rooftop solar installations that can be replicated by the thousands.

We Are Building this Record Breaking Solar Cell Efficiency!

The first round of the program, FPACEI, kicked off in 2011 with $35.8 million in grants for 18 separate solar cell research projects, partnering the Energy Department with the National Science Foundation.

The goal was to push new technologies out of the lab and into the factory by developing more efficient solar cell designs, using cheaper materials and integrating mass production efficiencies into the research process.

For example, one grant went to a Texas-based company called Astro Watt, which is working on an ultra-thin, large-area crystalline silicon cell that could be produced in modules for 50 cents per Watt or in cells alone for 30 cents per Watt.

Another piece of the pie went to Colorado State University, for a project to improve the efficiency of current cadmium telluride solar cell technology without causing manufacturing costs to go up.

The biggest single chunk ($6,240,942) went to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and industry partners for a low cost thin-film solar cell project based on copper indium gallium diselenide, aka CIGS.

If CIGS rings a bell, you may be thinking of a new conversion record for CIGS set by a Swiss research team, which was just announced last week at 20.4 percent.

NREL’s goal for its project is only 16 percent, which sounds excessively modest except when you consider the integrated position of manufacturing in the FPACE program. The Swiss achieved their mark in the laboratory, which is all well and good but NREL’s goal applies to the final result when the cells roll off a commercial assembly line.

Another two projects worth highlighting involve developing low cost, laser-based manufacturing methods for silicon solar cells, with a total of almost $8 million split between Oregon-based Solar World Industries America (the largest solar company in the U.S.) and a team spearheaded by the University of Delaware

As for PFACEII, this round of funding is more specifically focused on developing model single-junction systems that “have the potential to approach Shockley-Queisser power conversion efficiency limits.”

If the grants bear fruit, when integrated with the manufacturing improvements under PFACEI, that will be a killer combination.

Stay tuned: the application deadline for PFACEII is April 28.

Update: the article has been corrected to name Colorado State University as one of the grant recipients. Thanks to Russell Geisthardt for bringing that to our attention.

Image (cropped): Solar panels by kewl

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Russell Geisthardt

    A correction to the article: The University of Colorado did not get an FPACE grant; the Cadmium Telluride work is being done at Colorado State University. I am involved with both this project and the CIGS project at NREL.

  • Jim

    Tell me, in the last 40 years of research on solar cells efficiency at leading university and research labs that figure has not realychange. I think the silicon solar cell is at its maximum efficiency, I think that if they looked at the laminated glass PVA the efficiency could be increased by 5%, all the energy is lost in the laminated glass.

    • kate

      Yep that right, the laminated glass is an issue not much research has been done on that, I would agree on that point if more research needs to be done on this.

    • Bob_Wallace

      ” in the last 40 years of research on solar cells efficiency at leading university and research labs that figure has not realychange.”

      Wrong. New efficiency records are frequently set. You can see the history here…

      “Single p-n junction crystalline silicon devices are now approaching the theoretical limiting power efficiency of 33.7%, noted as the Shockley–Queisser limit in 1961.” Wiki

      “I think the silicon solar cell is at its maximum efficiency,”

      No, we are still short of the theoretical limit. I think record single crystal cell efficiency is now about 25%.

      “if they looked at the laminated glass PVA the efficiency could be increased by 5%”

      You sure there’s PVA in the cover glass? I thought tempered glass was used. PVAs are used for edge sealing.

      • luke

        I haven’t seen this happen, I have an poly 12v 60 watt @ 3.7amp solarex Australian made panel of 1980s, 33years old in the sun and compared to A grade high efficiency new mono USA made 12v 60 watt @ 3.26 amp solar panel of the same size no difference between them, actually it less efficiency. However USA pv should off be a smaller size if the efficiency was there but was the about same level current, but the older solarex still work the same.

        The only differences the older solarex I could find was better made frame which could be mounted from under the bottom any were you like. The junction boxes can be hard wired, with electrical flex pipe which can not be done with the new solar panels have MC4 connecters.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That’s inadequate data to say anything meaningful, Luke.

          There is some variance between efficiency of panels coming off a manufacturing line. Often manufactures will sort out the best as they are tested coming out and they will report the output of the “champion panel”. They will set a minimum level performance and, I assume, discard any panels that don’t test up to that guaranteed minimum.

          You could have gotten a champion panel 33 years ago and you could have gotten a very ordinary new panel.

          That’s one explanation, there are probably others.

          I’d be surprised if your 33 year old panel is outperforming new panels. Your panel should have lost something like 0.5% performance per year and now be down roughly 15% from when new. Several studies report those sorts of average loss.

          • Luke

            Been no lost in current or volts, the same reading as the day I purchased the panel still giving 3.7amp, the 33 year old PV was made with think layer of silicon very heavy panel, that could be the answer, could be thinner the solar cell have shorter the lifespan? That why I question efficiency, the new one does not compared to the 33 year old PV.

    • We’ve seen tremendous improvements in efficiency, and the potential for more is large. But the more efficient options aren’t always the cheapest.

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