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Thin-film PV research gets funding boost

17 Jan 2008

Durham University leads one of the UK's largest ever research projects into photovoltaic solar energy.

“Solar generation needs the equivalent of the Model T Ford”

The focus for the £6.3 million ($12.4 million) PV-21 program will be to make thin-film solar cells from sustainable and affordable materials. "Thin-film solar cells are already supremely well engineered, but it's the price and sustainability that we have to work on," Ken Durose of Durham University told optics.org. "Solar electricity generation needs the equivalent of the Model T Ford."

Beginning in April 2008 and running for four years, the project is being funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the SUPERGEN (sustainable power generation and supply) initiative. Eight UK universities are involved, along with nine industrial partners. "This is the biggest grant ever from the UK Research Councils for this research," commented Durose.

Areas of development will include finding alternatives to the indium that is currently used in absorbers and transparent conductors, aiming to produce a replacement that is less rare and expensive.

Another focus will be on reducing the thickness of the solar cells. "Shaving 1 µm from the thickness of solar cells generating 1 GW of power could save 50 tonnes of material," said Durose. "However, doing so poses significant technical challenges."

Methods of controlling crystallinity and grain size, techniques to control point defects, and new spectroscopic methods to measure energy spectra of deep levels in solar devices will all be investigated during the program.

The new funding follows an initial four-year research project by PV-21 that focused on the development of thin-film PV cells using compound semiconductors based on cadmium telluride and chalcopyrite systems. New partners in the program include Cranfield University, who will develop the combinatorial methods used in thin-film manufacture. "This is effectively the accelerator peddle for this research," noted Durose.

Groups at Imperial College and Edinburgh University will work on the economic implications of the technology.

The wider purpose of the project is to maintain the UK's position in thin-film PV technology. "It's true that we simply don't have the same firepower as Germany's research centres," commented Durose. "But the UK's skill at commercializing good ideas is shown by the number of very successful PV companies already set up here, many of them brand new and not necessarily household names. PV Crystalox Solar in Abingdon, for example, meet well over 10% of global demand for multicrystalline bulk silicon."

A number of PV companies and research programs are based in the UK's north-east region, close to Durham Univesity. These include the New And Renewable Energy Centre in Northumberland, the Plastic Electronic Technology Centre in County Durham, and Romag, a specialist manufacturer of transparent composites for PV panels that Durose says manufactures the largest solar modules in the world.

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