Natcore Works to Develop Method for Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Solar Cells
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on March 23, 2018 |

The most abundant renewable source on Earth, sunlight, is, unfortunately, expensive to harness. An average U.S. homeowner will pay between $2.71 and $3.57 per watt to install solar panels. Even after deducting the federal solar tax credit, solar panel costs may range from $11,380 to $14,990.

A typical photovoltaic solar panel is anything but simple. (Image courtesy of Solar Energy Industries Association.)
A typical photovoltaic solar panel is anything but simple. (Image courtesy of Solar Energy Industries Association.)

A lot goes into that number—equipment, installation, permits—reducing the cost of production has been a key focus for the industry, specifically reducing the need for precious metals in the production of solar cells. Because of its high electrical and thermal conductivity—and the fact that it is the most reflective metal—silver has become a primary ingredient in photovoltaic cells.

While the metal commodities market certainly ebbs and flows, so far this year silver has been staying at around $16.16 per ounce, or $258.56 per pound. An average solar panel requires about two-thirds of an ounce of silver. That’s not such a bad price, unless perhaps you could use aluminum instead—it lists at around $0.94 per pound. In a recent press release, Natcore Technology Inc. may have just found a way to make this a reality.

Solar panels may soon evolve to be more cost-effective thanks to developments by Natcore Technologies. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.)
Solar panels may soon evolve to be more cost-effective thanks to developments by Natcore Technologies. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.)

According to the company’s press release, “at approximately 1/300th the cost of silver, aluminum allows for more metal to be used to maintain conductivity, while also enabling high-speed, high-volume materials handling and processing.” Saying goodbye to silver and hello to aluminum would not only significantly reduce the material costs of solar panels, but also the associated complicated production processes.

With this knowledge at hand, the company’s research and development center worked to streamline the fabrication method for its Natcore Foil Cell, which could potentially lower production costs. Instead of the old method of using laser processing to create all-back-contact cell structures, Natcore has developed a carrier selective contact process. Using this method, which incorporates foil metallization, solar cells could be produced at a lower cost by using high-speed roll-processing methods.

A second advantage to using prefabricated foils is efficiency. According to Natcore, “the silicon heterojunction (SHJ) structure of Natcore's Foil Cell is the same basic structure used to achieve world-record silicon cell efficiencies of over 26 percent by major manufacturers in experimental solar cells.” This discovery has the potential to be an industry first: low-cost mass-produced, ultra-high-efficiency, all-back contact solar cells. It also may be what creates partnerships within the industry.

But before everyone rushes to sign up for solar conversion, all of this, unfortunately, is still in the early stages. Natcore formed a development program to produce a functioning prototype using the new process that the company hopes will prove its merit. Natcore will also conduct studies to establish the real-world benefits of its Foil Cell. If all goes as planned, the company will then pursue partnerships with industry leaders to commercialize the technology.

“The solar industry is exceedingly competitive,” said Brien Lundin, Natcore chairman. “Studies show that they have to achieve at least a 0.6 percent performance improvement every year to survive—yet they struggle to clear even this low bar. Because Natcore's Foil Cell will represent a generational leap in performance, we are confident that major industry players will join us in advancing our technology to market.”

For other solar research, check out Introducing Waterproof Solar Cells and Glass Microparticles Enhance Solar Cell Efficiency.


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