Department of Energy shines $14 million on solar energy projects

Eleven university solar research projects aimed at developing advanced solar photovoltaic (PV) technology manufacturing processes and products got a $14 million boost today from the Dept. of Energy.  Photovoltaic-based solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity, and are made of semiconductor materials similar to those used in computer chips.  When sunlight is absorbed by these materials, the solar energy knocks electrons loose from their atoms, allowing the electrons to flow through the material to produce electricity.   

The solar projects have the potential to significantly reduce the cost of electricity produced by PV products from current levels of $0.18-$0.23 per Kilowatt hour (kWh) to $0.05 - $0.10 per kWh by 2015 – a price that is competitive in markets nationwide, the DOE said.   Each university will work closely with an industry partner to ensure the projects retain a commercialization focus and that results are quickly transitioned into market ready-products and manufacturing processes, the DOE said. 

Increasing the use of solar energy is also critical to diversifying our nation’s energy sources in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil.  Combined with a minimum university and industry cost share of 20%, up to $17.4 million will be invested in these projects, according to the DOE.  

The DOE recently doled out almost $21 million for a total of 13 projects aimed at advancing solid-state lighting (SSL) research and product development.   The agency said it wants to accelerate solid-state lighting technology from the lab to the marketplace because it has the potential to more than double the efficiency of lighting systems, significantly reduce its carbon footprint and transform the environment.    

The Government Accounting Office recently said the DOE needs to step up its efforts to get inexpensive solar technology to marketing a recent report it said the DOE’s R&D goal is for solar power to be unsubsidized and cost competitive with conventional technologies by 2015 by, for example, developing new thin-film photovoltaic technologies using less expensive semiconductor material than crystalline-silicon to reduce solar cell manufacturing cost.

Specifically, DOE is working to reduce the costs of photovoltaic systems from about 18-23 cents per kilowatt hour in 2005 to about 5-10 cents per kilowatt hour in 2015.  DOE is also conducting R&D to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of concentrating solar power technologies, which use various mirror configurations to convert the sun’s energy to heat to generate electricity. Investors’ concerns about high up-front capital costs are among the most significant challenges in deploying photovoltaic or concentrating solar energy technologies. This requires both technologies to have lower costs for installation and operations and maintenance, better efficiency of converting solar power to electricity, and longer-term (20 to 30 years) durability, the GAO report said. 

The solar awards at least in part address some of the GAO’s concerns.  The selected solar projects include: 

Arizona State University with SolFocus and Soliant Energy: The recent boom in concentrating PVs has created a significant backlog of products waiting to undergo IEC product testing.  This project will focus on reducing bottlenecks of the qualification test such as environmental chamber testing while enhancing scheduling and coordination with industry to significantly increase testing throughput and efficiency.  DOE will provide up to $625,304 for this approximately $800,000 project. 

California Institute of Technology and Spectrolab: 100 millimeter (mm) Engineered InP on Si Laminate Substrates for InP based Multijunction Solar Cells.  Indium Phosphide (InP) is a very desirable substrate to form multijunction solar cells upon but is cost prohibitive even for high performance cells.  This project aims to reduce InP layer thickness by a factor of ten by bonding a thin layer of InP to an inexpensive silicon laminate substrate enabling a cost-effective, scaleable InP-based multijunction cell process.  In turn, this will open a new design space for high efficiency multijunction solar cells.  DOE will provide up to $837,000 for this approximately $1 million project. 

Georgia Institute of Technology with Sixtron: Rear Contact Technologies for Next- Generation High-Efficiency Commercial Silicon Solar Cells.  Performance-enhancing cell processing techniques are well established in the silicon industry but most are associated with higher processing costs, which may not be justified by the marginal increase in efficiency.  This project will develop enhanced, cost-effective light trapping, and inkjet-printed back contacts, to yield a complete, low-cost, cell process which produces 17-20% efficient devices that are ready for direct commercialization.  DOE will provide up to $1.5 million for this approximately $1.9 million project. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology with CaliSolar: Defect Engineering, Cell Processing, and Modeling for High-Performance, Low-Cost Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics.  This project will characterize defects and engineer their distribution within a solar cell to close the efficiency gap between industrial multicrystalline and high-efficiency monocrystalline silicon cells, while preserving the cost advantage of these low-cost, high–volume substrates. The project is targeting 18-22% efficient cells at manufacturing costs of less than $1 per peak watt.  DOE will provide up to $1.5 million for this approximately $1.9 million project. 

North Carolina State University with Spectrolab: Tunable Narrow Bandgap Absorbers for Ultra High Efficiency Multijunction Solar Cells.  Conversion efficiency of multijunction cells can be increased by balancing each layer’s responsiveness to the sun’s broad spectrum and by matching the current produced by each layer.  This project is targeting a world record efficiency of 45%.  DOE will provide up to $1,147,468 for this approximately $1.4 million project. 

Pennsylvania State University with Honeywell: Organic Semiconductor Heterojunction Solar Cells for Efficient, Low-Cost, Large Area Scalable Solar Energy Conversion.  Organic solar cells hold promise to drastically lower costs but currently have low conversion efficiencies due to drawbacks in the structure of the junction interface.  This project will focus on using highly ordered, high-surface area titanium dioxide nanotube arrays in combination with organic semiconductors to fabricate low-cost solar cells with efficiencies of greater than 7%.  DOE will provide up to $1,231,843 for this approximately $1.5 million project. 

University of Delaware Institute of Energy Conversion with Dow Corning: Development of a Low-Cost Insulated Foil Substrate for CIGS Photovoltaics.  Currently, direct formation of flexible Copper Indium Gallium Selenium (CIGS) modules is limited by the lack of an inexpensive substrate capable of withstanding the high processing temperatures required to produce quality films.  This project will address this limitation by targeting development of a low-cost stainless steel flexible substrate coated with silicone-based resin dielectric and module processes applicable across a variety of roll-to-roll CIGS manufacturing techniques.  The project will target devices based on this substrate with efficiencies greater than 12%.  DOE will provide up to $1,478,331 for this approximately $1.85 million project.

 University of Delaware with SunPower: High Efficiency Back Contact Silicon Heterojunction Solar Cells.  This project will deposit amorphous silicon (a-Si) films on crystalline cells to enhance the electrical properties and enable low-temperature processing.  Metal contacts will be moved to the back of the cell to increase the amount of light entering the cell and increase conversion efficiencies beyond 26%.  DOE will provide up to $1,494,736 for this approximately $1.9 million project.

 University of Florida with Global Solar Energy, International Solar Electric Technology, Nanosolar, and Solyndra  for Routes for Rapid Synthesis of CIGS Absorbers.  This project will develop predictive models that quantitatively describe the formation of CIGS films under different processing conditions.  These models can be used to develop optimal processing recipes which will reduce processing time and identify scaling issues for commercial manufacturing.  The project is targeting a CIGS synthesis time of less than two minutes.  DOE will provide up to $599,556 for this approximately $800,000 project. 

University of Toledo with Solar Fields:  Improved Atmospheric Vapor Pressure Deposition to Produce Thin CdTe Absorber Layers.  Record cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film devices utilize an 8-micrometer (µm) thick CdTe layer but duplication of this structure in commercial manufacturing increases material costs and deposition time.  This project will reduce the CdTe layer thickness to approximately 1-µm while targeting a 10% module efficiency.  Improvements to contacts, uniformity, and monolithic integration will also be achieved.  DOE will provide up to $1,164,174 for this approximately $1.7 million project. 

University of Toledo with Xunlight: High-Rate Fabrication of a-Si-Based Thin-Film Solar Cells Using Large-area VHF PECVD.  Reducing processing costs of amorphous silicon modules has proven difficult because increasing process throughput of conventional deposition processes results in lower device efficiency.  The project will target 10% conversion efficiency for amorphous silicon/nano crystalline silicon (a-Si/nc-Si) solar cells.  DOE will provide up to $1,442,266 for this approximately $1.9 million project. 

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