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 user 2011-02-03 at 8:57:54 am Views: 100
  • #23944

    Household item could make for a cheaper, thinner and better energy source
    next generation of cheaper, thinner and better solar cells could come
    courtesy of a technology found right in our homes and offices: inkjet
    printers.As their name implies, inkjet printers squirt ink onto a
    material, such as a paper document or the silicon of a solar cell. The
    well-controlled, contactless deposition of inkjetting should make
    possible solar cells that are half as thick, yet more efficient at,
    soaking up the sun’s rays than today’s industry standard.”Inkjet is very
    good at putting down patterned material – anything that has a specific
    layout,” said Maikel van Hest, a senior scientist at the National Center
    for Photovoltaics at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in
    Golden, Colo.Such precision allows for the placement of thinner
    metallic grids on silicon solar cells that serve as collectors of
    sun-generated electricity. These silver “finger” strips crisscrossing
    solar cells measure in the 100- to 120-micrometer — or micron — range,
    whereas inkjet-deposited lines can be as narrow as 50 or even 20
    microns, van Hest said.The thinner contacts expose more of a solar
    cell’s silicon to sunlight, which translates into more electricity
    generation. “(These lines) mean less shadows and more light onto the
    solar cell,” said van Hest.Using smaller portions of the expensive,
    electricity-capturing contact material — silver, a precious metal, being
    the most common — dovetails into lower overall unit costs as well.Plus,
    the silver inks used in inkjets are more conductive than the pastes
    applied to solar cells nowadays, resulting in more efficient harvesting
    of electricity.

    Delicate patterning
    Yet another major bonus
    for inkjet technology is that it is contactless – the printer apparatus
    itself never touches the brittle silicon wafer.Conventional silicon
    solar cell manufacturing has relied on a comparatively rougher technique
    called screen printing – the same sort often used for making T-shirt
    designs, for example – since its early days in the 1970s.With screen
    printing, fragility becomes a real issue for silicon wafers around 100
    microns or less in height, van Hest said.

    Whither inkjet?
    these benefits, it’s surprising that inkjet printing in solar cell
    manufacturing has yet to be deployed commercially. But significant
    hurdles remain — some inherent to the technology, and others as a result
    of the evolution of the photovoltaic industry.For starters, shifting to
    inkjet printing from screen printing will require retrofitting existing
    solar cell production facilities, and inkjet printing remains the more
    expensive process up front.”Inkjet (printing) is always going to be more
    expensive than screen printing,” van Hest said, “but because you use
    less material and get more efficiency from the solar cell, you can gain a
    cost advantage.”Solar panel manufacturers typically offer a 30-year
    warranty for their products, and for now the jury is still out on how
    inkjet-made components might hold up in the long run. Van Hest said NREL
    is doing accelerated field testing to see if there is a difference
    between tried-and-true manufacturing and the inkjet approach.”Companies
    don’t want to risk their money going into a new technology and run into
    problems in the future,” said van Hest.

    A bright tomorrow
    continuing surge of solar cells — which as a means of electricity
    generation grew a hundredfold last decade, according to a 2010 report by
    the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century — might start
    changing some industry minds, however.Slashing the amount of silicon and
    silver needed per solar cell is among the most direct ways of lowering
    the dollar per kilowatt-hour of produced power – a shared goal of the
    maturing solar sector.”Inkjet will become interesting if (silicon) wafer
    thicknesses go below 50 microns, versus 150 microns today for 100
    percent of the market, because non-touch processes will be required,”
    said Conrad Burke, the CEO of Innovalight, a California-based company
    that has developed an inkjettable ink currently used by screen
    printers.Burke sees this inkjet era dawning in about six to eight years.
    Van Hest believes inkjet’s adoption will happen alongside many other
    emerging photovoltaic technologies, such as thin-film solar cells, and
    numerous other manufacturing techniques.”It’s going to be a combination
    of all technologies a decade from now,” van Hest told TechNewsDaily. “I
    think inkjet printing will be a part of mainstream production technology
    for solar cells … the industry is growing fast, so there’s room for
    all of this.”