Solar Photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing continues along a trajectory of decreasing costs that will very soon cause it to reach grid parity. This post looks at an innovative Massachusetts based startup, 1366 Technologies that is poised to begin commercializing an important new cost cutting (and energy saving) manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce the cost of Silicon solar cell fabrication.
A Massachusetts solar startup 1366 Technologies, based in Lexington, MA has just received a $150 million conditional loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE) that is to be used to scale its Direct Wafer manufacturing capabilities in Massachusetts and build a second U.S. manufacturing facility. This solar photovoltaic technology company is commercializing a series of proprietary manufacturing innovations aimed at producing high efficiency multi-crystalline solar cells at a fraction of today’s cost. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2013 with production commencing the next year.
The company predicts that the cost of a 6-by-6-inch wafer, for example, will fall to $1 from $3. This major cost cutting manufacturing technology is also important because silicon multi-crystalline solar cells remain by far the most important segment of the world’s PV capacity and because silicon is an abundant and environmentally benign material. The company’s manufacturing solutions are compatible with existing supply chain processes, delivering a large impact without the complexity of adopting radically different production methods.
“As governments around the world push the commercial development of renewable energy and carbon-reducing technologies, the DOE loan guarantee program is critical to keeping U.S. manufacturing competitive and thriving,” said Frank van Mierlo. “With this loan, 1366 will realize its goal to make solar energy as cheap as coal while helping the U.S. to reclaim a key part of the silicon supply chain and restore the nation’s dominance in photovoltaics.”
The loan will play a critical role in the company’s expansion – creating two facilities and hundreds of jobs. The first commercial facility, located in the company’s home state of Massachusetts, is scheduled to be fully operational by 2013 and will produce 20 megawatts per year of capacity, employ 100 people and further New England’s role as a clean energy center. Construction on a second, larger, 1,000 megawatt facility is scheduled to commence in 2013 and create 300 permanent positions. The location of the second U.S. facility has not been decided. [See: Big Concentrating Solar Tower Project in Nevada Gets DOE Loan Guarantee, to read about a large CSP project going ahead in Nevada]
On an aside (for the curious) the “1366” in the company’s name refers to the amount of solar energy (in Watts) that reaches each square meter of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Silicon is a non-toxic, safe, proven material that lasts a very long time. It is one of the most abundant elements in Earth’s crust; second only to Oxygen. Thin film solar PV relies on exotic rare heavy metals, such as FirstSolar’s dependence on Tellurium, which is an extremely rare metal. As a result Silicon based PV manufacturing can scale out without facing the bottlenecks that thin film PV will eventually run into.
Silicon is a well understood material and is used in numerous commercial products already. The supply chain is well developed; the physics and chemistry is well understood; and it has the potential to smoothly scale out.
Silicon is also one of the most powerful semiconducting materials. Silicon cells have proven efficiencies above 23% in manufacturing, with theoretical potential of approximately 30%.
Direct Wafer Technology
Current wafer manufacturing is a multi-step, energy- and capital-intensive process that wastes 50% of the valuable silicon feedstock as ingots are sawed into wafers. The company’s claims that its process reduces the cost of making a wafer by 80 percent. This is significant when one considers that wafer manufacturing accounts for more than half the cost of producing a silicon PV module.
1366’s Direct Wafer technology forms a standard, 156mm multi-crystalline wafer directly from molten silicon in a semi-continuous, efficient, high-throughput process that eliminates silicon waste. The result is a more powerful, low-cost “kerfless” wafer that is environmentally friendly and uses much less energy than traditional multi-step wafer manufacturing techniques.
The process was invented by MIT professor Ely Sachs in 2009.
Self-Aligned Cell Technology
The Self-Aligned Cell (SAC) delivers a simpler, more commercially-viable solution for enhanced texturing and metallization to enable cell manufacturers to reach 18 percent multicrystalline cell efficiencies. This texturing process creates a geometrically optimized cell surface for better light capture and trapping. The process can be independently implemented, is compatible with existing multicrystalline cell lines, and delivers up to a 1% efficiency gain. SAC represents an incremental improvement over the currently employed isotexture process that is applied to multicrystalline silicon cells. The reflectivity power losses of multicrystalline wafers are high compared to more expensive mono wafers. The SAC results in a low-reflectivity honeycomb surface after a wet etching step thAt improves cell efficiencies at little additional cost.
About 1366 Technologies
Since its founding in 2008, 1366 Technologies has raised $46 million from equity investors which has helped the company bring its transformative Direct Wafer technology into production. Direct Wafer technology forms a 156mm multi-crystalline wafer directly from molten silicon. This is in stark contrast to standard wafer manufacturing which involves a multi-step, batch process of ingot casting, blocking, squaring, and sawing that wastes up to 50% of the high-value silicon. By using standard silicon and producing industry compatible wafers, Direct Wafer integrates into the existing silicon photovoltaics’ supply chain, providing cost savings to cell customers without added complexity.
In October 2009, 1366 received a $4 million grant from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) to support the development of the Direct Wafer technology. “This has always been about creating a transformational technology, one that will allow solar to become a real part of our energy supply,” continued van Mierlo. “With the support of our private investors and the DOE, we’re now approaching the manufacturing stage and closer than ever to realizing the promise of our technology.”
See our related post: “12 Clean Energy Trends to Watch in 2011 and Beyond“, to read more on how cleantech is entering a phase of dramatic change.
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