MIT spin-off plans to manufacture cheap, efficient solar cells

March 27, 2008 by Lisa Zyga, weblog
1366 Technologies
In the new solar cell design by MIT researchers, more light can be captured, increasing efficiency and decreasing cost per watt. Image credit: 1366 Technologies.

Researchers from MIT have improved commercial solar cells that will soon be significantly cheaper and more efficient than those available today. Ely Sachs, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, predicts that by 2012 such solar cells will be comparable in price with coal, which is about $1 per watt.

Sachs and his colleagues have started a company called 1366 Technologies. With the help of a recent $12.4 million grant, the team is building a pilot-scale manufacturing plant to fabricate their first batch of solar cells. The cells currently have an efficiency of 19.5%, and cost about $1.65 per watt. That´s a 27% improvement in efficiency over similar commercial solar cells of today, which have about 15% efficiency and cost about $2.10 per watt.

1366 Technologies´ solar cells are made from multi-crystalline silicon - a material that is normally less efficient than top quality single-crystal cells, but significantly cheaper. However, with the improvements by Sach´s group, the multi-crystalline solar cells reach about the same efficiency as the single-crystal variety.

Over the next year, the group will decide whether their pilot manufacturing results justify building a factory for commercial production. Sachs also predicts that the cost of the solar cells will drop to around $1.35 per watt in the near future, due to anticipated advances.

One of the biggest improvements to the new design is the addition of texture to the surface of the solar cells. In the past, this step has been very difficult for researchers to achieve with multi-crystalline silicon. The rough surface allows the cells to capture more light, since it bends the light and causes it to bounce around longer inside the cell, rather than reflect straight off the back and exit the cell. The researchers also etched wires inside the solar cell so that they too allow more light to enter the cell. Another improvement involved making the silver wires that harvest the current very thin, which cuts down on the cost and allows more light to enter the cell.

Sachs, who is taking a leave of absence from MIT to help build the company, says that other solar cell makers will be free to use 1366 Technologies´ designs, and hopefully make solar power a more affordable and efficient method to meet global energy requirements. In the future, the company hopes to build industrial, 100-megawatt plants around the world.

"Once the pilot plant has proven itself, we´ll work with governments and energy agencies worldwide to build a string of factories," said Carmichael Roberts. Roberts is a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, which - along with Polaris Venture Partners - is funding 1366 Technologies. Roberts is also joining 1366 Technologies´ board of directors as chairman.

More information:

via: MIT Technology Review

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3 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2008
Yet another "Solar Cell Breakthrough".
Let see, this is March and there have been 18 articles so far this year hyping solar cells.
When the price for cells you can actually BUY drops to a comparable price for steel roofing plus the value of power generated in 12 months, I'll buy a roof full. Until then I ain't holdin' my breath.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2008
I feel the same way about all the breakthrus reported here about Quantum computers and fuel cells..Same question...When can i get one at the store???
3 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2008
realize this....even if the solar cell hype is bullshit right now,...there is a good chance solar cells become seriously awesome within 50 years. that's still a huge deal. what's going on now is the first time in history where a new mass source of energy is being tapped not because it provides a greater power than before, but because it is simply necessary to phase out the previous expensive polluting source. amazing.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2008
I'm optimistic like zevkrish. Although another problem to overcome is cheaper, low-maintenance batteries. Its the battery cost and maintenance in a modern solar cell system that really makes it so nonviable for many people.
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 27, 2008
The only true source of energy is nuclear. (except wind which I think is caused by rotation of the earth stirring the atomosphere). Fossil fuels are merely bio batteries of solar energy from the Sun.
As a free nuclear power plant the Sun is great. It distributes its power freely to every square inch of the earth. Just take a large (hand sized) magnifying glass out on a sunny day. Observe the raw energy when focussed. (WARNING DONT LOOK AT IT DIRECTLY!)
Cheap solar power would accutely transform the energy industry. One has to imagine that big oil is terrified of the prospect.
These high oil prices are terribly damaging to big oil. In the short time they great as their net income sky rockets. However consumers will eventually curb their demand and find replacements.
Before long we will see a crash in oil prices. Perhaps OPEC sense this and want to make the most of an energy monopoly before it is destroyed by ubiquitous solar power. However all they are doing is stealing profits from the future.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2008
You folks are a little behind the times. Nano Solar already has a 430 megawatt thin film photovoltaic plant, up and running in California and Germany, selling for 99 cents a watt. Each year, if each of the new plants could spawn 10 new ones, we will be well on our way toward electrifying the world with solar energy.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2008
The difference between this story and the others is the topic isn't a "breakthrough in technology" but a breakthrough in production. The pilot production will determine whether or not this new system is economically viable.

This is the first I've seen of any major production plans or risk taking. The 430 Watt-99 cent photovoltaic sounds promising but it is own by a small start-up firm that hasn't been able to prove production capabilities - though they hope to have a plant open by the end of the year.

There are many more improvements to come, but you have to remember there is more to this technology than the research. Let's hope their are 18 or more stories in April that discuss more progress on the production and implementation of these technologies.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2008
Sol misspoke. Nanosolar has a plant up and running to produce 430MW worth of cells per year that cost $0.99/W wholesale. That's a long way from an installed solar facility capitalized at .99/W
5 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2008
>(...)except wind which I think is caused by rotation of the earth stirring the atomosphere(...)

Rotation is one source but wind is also generated by Sun heating Earth in an unequal pattern due to clouds, different sun angle, etc. The locally hotter and therefore less dense air rises and at the ground level it is replaced by colder air moving from the nearby colder area = wind.

Air cycle: (vertical axis is altitude)

.............wind --->
air is heated..........air gets colder
and rises..............and descends
.............{-- wind
not rated yet Mar 30, 2008
Though thin film solar cells have reached this cost structure in mass production the end cost to the general public is still near $5 per watt (I%u2019ve seen $4 on sale) but that is not installed. The thin film manufactures are taking advantage of crystalline costs structures and making scads of money. Reducing costs for M-C cells to that of thin film is very good news as they maintain their energy conversion ratios much longer than thin film, do it in a smaller space, and they use a lower grade of silicon than single-crystal cells.

As more research is put in this feild we will see more news releases. As a comparison to computer develpoement we are somewhere around the Apple. The Commodore/PC version is coming.

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