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New production process could cut solar cell prices by half

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March 15, 2012

Twin Creeks Technologies' Hyperion process is claimed to be able to produce crystalline si...

Twin Creeks Technologies' Hyperion process is claimed to be able to produce crystalline silicon wafers, for use in solar cells, for half the cost of conventional methods

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Boosting solar cell efficiency is seen as a key factor in making them more practical, but there is another way of looking at the matter ... if the price of those cells were lowered, we could generate more power simply by using more of them. That’s where Mississippi-based Twin Creeks Technologies comes into the picture. The company has developed a method of making crystalline silicon wafers which it says could reduce the cost of solar cell production by half.

Ordinarily, when crystalline silicon wafers are being made for use in solar cells, a chunk of silicon is cut into wafers that are each 200 micrometers thick. According to Twin Creeks, however, only the very surface of that wafer is “active” – the rest is wasted. Much less waste would occur if the wafers could be made thinner, but using traditional production techniques, such wafers would be too fragile to stand up to the rigors of photovoltaic panel production.

In Twin Creeks’ proprietary Hyperion process, three-millimeter-thick disks of crystalline silicon are placed in a vacuum chamber, where they’re bombarded with a beam of hydrogen ions. The ion accelerator that’s used is reportedly ten times more powerful than anything else commercially available.

The Hyperion ion accelerator is claimed to be ten times more powerful than any other curre...

Through control of the voltage of its beam, a layer of ions is precisely deposited on each disk. Those ions proceed to penetrate the silicon, so they’re located just below its surface. The disks are then robotically transferred to a furnace and heated. This causes the ions to expand into microscopic bubbles of hydrogen gas, which in turn causes a 20-micrometer-thick layer of silicon to peel off the surface of each disk. A supportive metal backing is then applied to that layer, and it’s ready for use.

The disks can be reused up to 14 times, each time “exfoliating” another layer of silicon.

The resulting ultra-thin wafers are claimed to be at least as efficient as their thicker traditional counterparts, yet require 90 percent less silicon to produce. The system can be added to existing production lines, although because less tools are required, production costs should also be significantly reduced. Additionally, the technology can be used with other single-crystal materials such as gallium nitride and germanium.

Presently, the technology can be seen in action at Twin Creeks’ commercial demonstration plant in Senatobia, Mississippi. The company intends to license the Hyperion system to existing solar cell manufacturers.

Source: Twin Creeks Technologies via Technology Review

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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19 Comments

The only cost that will be cut in half will be the production cost. The price to the consumer will stay the same if not increase. Much the same with made with recycled materials. Logic leads to the conclusion that since the procurement and processing of raw materials is taken out of the picture or greatly reduced, the over all cost for the product should be less. Of course by the fuzzy math that benefits the manufacturer this never happens.

Rant complete and I would like to add that it would be fantastic if solar technology actually did come down in price so that it could become a manstream factor to ease our energy problems.

Rt1583
15th March, 2012 @ 08:04 pm PDT

Rt1583... While it's true that prices don't necessarily come down to meet the production price reductions in all cases, they often do. Look at the price of a brand new computer today. Even an entry level model is hundreds of times faster with literally millions of times the storage space of computers available just 10 years ago. And they sell for a fraction of the price.

Daryl Sonnier
15th March, 2012 @ 09:16 pm PDT

@ Daryl - Though computers are a good example of technology coming down in price, there is a large disconnect in that business model as it relates to solar power systems. At one time computers were so expensive that only large coorporations or governments could afford them. It wasn't until the mid to late 70's that computers started to come down in price enough for the average person to take advantage of them. Solar power systems, in terms of large scale power production (not simple single device systems or battery chargers) have consistantly stayed high regardless of the technology, that through the years has promised to make solar power cheaper. Though the panels may be cheaper today than 20-30 years ago, the systems are still too expensive to justify the cost. On average it will take 15-25 years (depending on power comsumption/production) to break even on the investment, at which point a new system may need to be installed simply because the old one has reached the end of its life span. If they can get a system for average home use down to a level where the break even point nears 8-12 years, allowing for an additional 8-12 years of relatively free power production solar would start to dominate a good portion of the market. This type of reduction in cost should also be done without government subsidies as they just take part of the cost away up front and tack it back on through increase taxes through the years.

Unfortunately, the skeptic in me will continue to believe my original statement. I understand companies need to make money but if a business can't sell its product at all they are much worse off than if they sold it at a reduced price.

Rt1583
16th March, 2012 @ 02:14 am PDT

focus on integrated roof solar arrays to power a single house - irrespective of power grid - if manufacturers / installers / home builders (roi and repairs must be both reasonable) see a cost benefit ratio that makes money for them, traditional power sources could focus more on commercial uses, cheaper power for mfg etc. the more mass production, competition will eventually make the solar installations cost effective. unfortunately government lips say one thing, government actions are different and as the megacorporations speaketh so goes our world.

Brad Needham
16th March, 2012 @ 04:13 am PDT

Hmmmm why not just make the jump to doped silicon vapor deposition onto a cold roll, with grid enabled separators... so sort of air thin cells come out like toner from a laser printer, minus the paper?

Make them in the triple junction variety with say 35% effiency...

I am hoping to see reasonably efficient solar panels that would be costing $50 a square meter soon.

Mr Stiffy
16th March, 2012 @ 05:15 am PDT

Does this mean I have to defer my investment again, in case the price drops just after I've signed on the dotted line... But of course we all hope the price does drop so that we can all enjoy cheaper energy.

agulesin
16th March, 2012 @ 07:18 am PDT

Why don't you just build a few nuclear reactors and wait for solar technology to actually become a viable source. Much like wind, it is not fiscally sound and therefore has no business in the market. Only subsidies allow these pipe dreams to come true. Tax everyone...more...more...more.

Hmmm...
16th March, 2012 @ 08:20 am PDT

As I skimmed over these comments, I failed to see anything to do with the market forces that come into play. There must needs be a natural tendancy for prices to drop.

While it is true of the Chinese manufacturer, that the did artificially inflate their pricing structure, the time will come that there will be a parity in their money picture.

I see that in the costing of such computers as the tablet PC's take hold as the primary tool in both business and education. I have already seen the cost cut in half in just under a year's time. I am being offered a 10.2in. tablet for $100.00U.S. plus delivery with android 4 system installed. FOB manufacturer.

robbielu7
16th March, 2012 @ 10:20 am PDT

My recently installed system cost $25,000. I can already see that I will save about $2,500 a year without tax breaks. That is a break even in ten years and a savings of $12,500 if the system lasts (without serious deterioration) 15 years. Almost all of the electricity that is produced in my county (Maui) is produced by burning oil, so if the price of oil increases I will save more. BTW, I can also see that my only serious use of electricity is by those units that use the 220 outlets (oven and dryer in my case). My water has been solar since 1999. Before the installation of my PV solar system (19 panels), on average, I was paying about $230 monthly for electricity, while around me people without solar water were paying on average $400 monthly. I was using, on average, 560 units of electricity a month. In the following months after I installed my panels, I used 86, 60, -21, and 75 units of electricity. In this period, so far, the usage is -25 and since this is a very clear day, I expect that this will drop to -40 by the end of the day. My electric bill has averaged about $22 since the installation.

morriss003
16th March, 2012 @ 11:29 am PDT

This technology looks promising but the information given is misleading. The article says that only the surface of solar cells is active, this is just flat out wrong. Longer wavelengths ( say 600 to 1200 nm) are absorbed in the bulk and rear side of solar cells so when you make a wafer 20 microns thick instead of 200 you end up losing a lot of current. Also this technique of high energy implantation of hydrogen and then basically blowing off the surface of the wafer is bound to create a lot of damage which should affect carrier lifetimes and mobilities and lower the current even further. Another thing to note is that normal silicon solar cells get their front and back metallization as the very last step, here the metal is applied when pulling off the wafer, so a completely new process would be needed, this couldn't simply be added to existing lines as implied in the article.

John Renshaw
16th March, 2012 @ 01:26 pm PDT

Improvement in solar cell cost per kWh over the lifetime of the cell is always good news...we should all hope the Hyperion technology can deliver on its promise. We shall see. True, it may not dramatically reduce pricing in the shorter term but may only be a boon to the industry in terms of increasing their profit margins and if so, well then that's really a good thing too as it will encourage the buildup of the industry and then in the longer term, those who have a production cost advantage should, all other things being equal, become more competitive since they can drop their prices a bit relative to those who don't have an advantage like Hyperion tech may give. Ultimately, pricing for cells should come down and then we'll all be better-off. If Hyperion tech doesn't pan out, there are many other ideas out there that likely will and already have dropped production costs greatly in comparison to solar cell lifetime energy yield. The same is true with wind power.

Unfortunately, what's missed by so many while in the midst of debates such as the above is the fact that solar and wind are non-steady power sources. The sun's not always shining and the wind's not always blowing. The really critical technology that needs to be given more attention is technology for storing this non-steady energy in safe, cost-effective forms. For this, one of the greatest candidates out there is the Renewable Fischer-Tropsch Process. (e.g. Doty Energy). With this kind of tech, not hydrogen, we can see the earth's best solar and wind energy regions becoming the "EternaFuel carbon-neutral oil fields" of the future. With oil prices now seeming to stabilize in the $100/barrel range, the RFTP tech is ready for take-off and improved solar or wind energy cost-efficiencies such as Hyperion may achieve will just help move things along a little faster.

Avianthro
16th March, 2012 @ 07:23 pm PDT

Show that these cells are maintenance free and that they can be swapped out with more efficient models as they become available and they will start to fly off the shelf. I think the US is ready to walk away from the fossil fuels. The sooner the better.

Carlos Grados
16th March, 2012 @ 08:28 pm PDT

The US is walking away from Fossil fuels, coal power on the grid fell 6% last year to 39%, the lowest since the 1970's. Meanwhile solar power generation last year rose 60% and total renewables rose by 21% to a total grid contribution of 12.6%.

New solar installations rose by 110% for the year suggesting this years generation numbers will see similar or even larger rises.

There is a revolution occurring and all signs are it is likely to accelerate. There is an interesting report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance looking at long term trends in solar and grid electricity pricing showing that solar is on the cusp of reaching grid parity without subsidies across the US, with the potential for 100 million Americans to be able to access unsubsidised solar power for cheaper then they can buy it from their local utility company. Have a read if your interested. http://www.newrules.org/sites/newrules.org/files/rooftop-revolution-ilsr.pdf

Robert Smithers
18th March, 2012 @ 12:48 am PDT

To continue beating a dead horse, there are many aspects of renewable energy to be debated but the jist of this article to the supposed lowering of the cost of solar panels and by extension one could assume solar power systems.

My point of debate is and will continue to be that, at least in the U.S., corporations have proven themselves over and over again to not pass realized savings on to the consumer. Take oil for example, a barrel of crude goes up in price and the price of a gallon of fuel goes up. This is completely understandable. However, when the price of crude falls, the price of a gallon of fuel typically does not fall in a relative fashion. Part of this, though a small part, is due to the consumers just sitting by and taking what is given as the truth.

Rt1583
18th March, 2012 @ 08:41 pm PDT

Rt1583 it's both a dead horse and also pure conspiracy theory. The reality is that solar power price reductions have been consistently handed on, factory gate prices per watt output were $20 in 1980, $8 in 1990, $5 in 2000, $2 in 2010 and have just cracked $1 this year. These price reductions are completely verifiable, there is no conspiracy keeping solar power expensive.

Similarly despite evidence to the contrary on blogs everywhere gas prices do in fact fall when oil prices fall. http://s255.photobucket.com/albums/hh133/counterclockwisester/?action=view¤t=oilvsgasprices.jpg&sort=ascending.

This graph shows the tight up AND DOWN correlation between oil and gasoline prices. There is no truth being hidden or ignored by consumers. There are various market forces influencing gas prices, oil price being a major but not the only one.

Robert Smithers
19th March, 2012 @ 04:19 am PDT

@ Robert and robbielu7 - I would love to have this discussion face to face, unfortunately in this unconnected world, we are left with this as our forum.

You throw out market forces as if it is meaningful. What exactly are market forces?

Let's take Enron, at its peak, Enron stock was making millionaires out of many people yet shortly after this peak Enron all but disappeared from the market place in epic failure. Come to find out everything about the last few years of Enron's life was based on fabricated information. What market force is this?

The oil bubble of a few years ago is similar in that the price of a gallon of gas was driven not by the actual price of a barrel of crude but the speculation on the price of a barrel of crude. By the fact of omitting that the price was driven by speculation, the public was lied to. Is this a different market force?

Many lenders were crucified in the housing crash but not a single, individual person was held responsible for taking out loans that they more than likely couldn't afford in the first place. What is this market force?

Top executives in many companies continue to make ridiculous salaries and bonuses even while their companies are failing. It stands to reason that if these executives are paid such salaries in the hope that they will bring higher profits to the company that they should also be paid considerably less when said company fails to realize the desired profits. Of course high salaries are never given as a reason for high product cost so this must not qualify as a market force.

"Market forces", to me, is a very vague term used to give a reason for a given outcome (good or bad) without giving an actual cause.

Rt1583
20th March, 2012 @ 09:00 pm PDT

Market forces are all the things which influence a good or commodities price or value in any way at all, up, down or sideways. It is the sum of all factors affecting the items commerce.

Market forces can be legally and illegally influenced. Your Enron example is one where market forced were manipulated by individuals to increase their own profits. It was illegal and they were caught.

In terms of the oil bubble, the public was not lied to, anyone with any interest in oil trading can easily find out how oil is traded on a futures market and how geopolitical events can alter the behavior of those traders. That is not manipulation it is a quintessential example of how market based trading systems factor in the risk of certain events into the commodities price. Certainly there was no concealment of the fact that commodity trading markets work this way, the public may be ignorant of it but they are not lied to, the information is freely available if they want to know.

In terms of the housing market. This statement "not a single, individual person was held responsible for taking out loans that they more than likely couldn't afford in the first place" Must be the most uninformed statement I've read in many years, the several million people facing foreclosure on loans they couldn't afford would probably disagree with you that they arent being held responsible for their commitment.

Executive salaries is an ongoing issue. Thee is always the potential for people to loot from a sinking ship. Many companies do set their executive salaries with significant performance bonuses to encourage increased profits. Once again you must be joking that salaries aren't given as a reason for higher product costs, are you living under a rock?

Market forces is a vague term given without listing specific factors because it by definition every factor, big, small, good, bad, legal and illegal which influences a good or commodities commerce.

Robert Smithers
24th March, 2012 @ 12:09 am PDT

@ Robert - Thanks for the response and the corrections of my misunderstandings. Question I have now, and this applies to you and anyone else who chooses to invoke "market forces" as an explanation, how much more difficult is it to actually say what is going on? Why hide behind "market forces"? People are generally smart enough to understand that action A leads to consequence A and possibly B.

Due to the nature of life, people must rely on good information from various sources to form their opinions and ultimately make decision that influence not only their lives but also the lives of those in the broader population. If I am given the very vague answer of "market forces" as the reason why something good or bad is happening how am I supposed to make informed decisions? Should I go out and learn every thing there is to know about every single thing that influences my life? Or should I continue on with the system that has been in place, probably as long as homosapiens have walked the earth, and rely on people who choose to learn about the intricacies of a given system or subject to give reliable/relevant information?

Rt1583
27th March, 2012 @ 05:40 am PDT

It s completely up to you how informed or otherwise you want to be about things affecting you, as a doctor I see people who say "spare me the details, you're the expert" and then others who come armed with 500 printed pages from Wikipedia wanting to know my thoughts on whether the new study in the lower Uzbekistani Medical Journal may be of help in their case. Both approaches have advanages and disadvantages.

In terms of how much harder is it to give detail, well frankly it can be much harder, there are entire textbooks on the factors affecting world energy markets. The point I was making was that gas prices do in fact rise and fall with oil prices as clearly demonstrated by the graph. My comment about it being one of the many market forces affecting gas prices was deliberately minimal as the other factors did not relate to the point I was responding too.

Something that isn't reasonable I believe is making statements of fact with insufficient or no basis, which is what I felt your comments about the cost improvements in gas and solar being malevolently withheld represented.

Robert Smithers
27th March, 2012 @ 07:14 am PDT
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