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Earth Power Technology

Optical Furnace Bakes Better Solar Cells 93

Posted by timothy
from the might-as-well-be-walking-on-the-sun dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory just announced that they have found a way to create more efficient photovoltaic cells using 50% less energy. The technique hinges upon a new optical furnace that uses intense light instead of a conventional furnace to heat silicon to make solar cells. The new furnace utilizes 'highly reflective and heat-resistant ceramics to ensure that the light is absorbed only by a silicon wafer, not by the walls inside the furnace.'"
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Optical Furnace Bakes Better Solar Cells

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  • by ibsteve2u (1184603) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @12:34PM (#38556552)
    Until I read a Slashdot article about a facility in the PRC manufacturing photovoltaic cells using 'highly reflective and heat-resistant ceramics to ensure that the light is absorbed only by a silicon wafer, not by the walls inside the furnace'"?
    • by crispin_bollocks (1144567) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:02PM (#38556700)
      I worked on an optical/ceramic-walled metallization furnace that started shipping a year ago. Apparently our US marketing people didn't come up with sufficiently catchy buzz to generate sales. I was laid off in September after documenting all the assembly procedures for our new plant in ... Shanghai :-(
      • by ibsteve2u (1184603) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:19PM (#38556796)
        Ouch!, on your behalf....on a larger scale, America seems to be in the grip of this attitude of "If it won't make us a lot of money today, we don't want to play!" at the Wall Street/venture capital/NHWI level.

        To our detriment; Rome wasn't built in a day - but it took about a day to fall.
        • Bullocks. Rome took centuries to fall.

          • by hedwards (940851)

            I hardly see how Saundra Bullock caused the fall of Rome.

          • by ibsteve2u (1184603) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:37PM (#38556906)
            lolll...no, the Roman Empire - its power structure, and so its government - took about three decades to decay [tacitus.nu] to the point that Alaric could sack Rome on August 24, A.D. 410.

            About as long as "flood-up/trickle-down" economics has been dictating policy in the U.S., in fact.
            • by Lumpy (12016)

              Well the decay in the united states started in the 1980's so I'm guess we are right on track.
              it was about that time when Corporations stopped caring about product quality and innovation and decided that the right thing is to maximize profits at all costs.

              • by Genda (560240) <[mariet] [at] [got.net]> on Sunday January 01, 2012 @05:03PM (#38558234) Journal

                The problem has been a predictable result of Corporations railing against restriction and regulation. We put powerful rods in the reactor of capitalism when at the turn of the twentieth century a succession of economic disasters was precipitated by wholesale greed and financial practices that made a tiny few rich, but impoverished the masses.

                We find ourselves learning the hard way, that we haven't changed in any significant way in 100 years, that greed is ultimately destructive and that our economic engines need exactly the same kind of checks and balances that our political engines require, because in the end, its all about the best and worst in being human. If you don't ensure stability, diversity and fair competition, you get boom-bust, profound disparity and a system which us ultimately unsustainable.

                Corporations must be separated from government, for the benefit of both. Both must have a strong set of checks and balances (for example, corporations must not have the rights of human beings.) Both must have strong external guidance based on the greater good of society including environmental necessity, social responsibility and human dignity. A system of rewards and punishment must be implemented that moves these great forces in a direction that serves the needs of humanity and not the other way around.

                • by emaname (1014225)

                  If I had mod points, I'd give them all to you.

                  That's a wonderful summary of cause and effect and possible solutions.

                  Thank you.

                • At the risk of sounding like a free market wanker, capitalist markets will find a way to subvert regulatory reform. Now that they've had practise undoing reforms put in place during the first great depression, they'll just get 'er done faster this time. We need revolution not regulation. I don't mean Tea Party style guns a-blazing revolution, just a complete rationally based restructuring of our economy. Worker owned cooperatives might be a compromise economic structure that will satisfy both Marxists and c
            • by swb (14022)

              But its not like the conditions of Rome in 380 AD were the conditions of Rome for all the years prior. It took a lot going wrong to get there.

              IMHO the "decline" really starts with the death of Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius, depending on your perspective. Some people even think it starts earlier, with the end of the Republic and the start of the empire.

              • It is true that it took the powerful and wealthy of Rome more than a day to destroy any real loyalty to their government - but again, you're referencing the Roman Empire. The fall of Rome itself came with unseemly speed when Rome's economic underclass opened the Salarian Gate for the Visigoths.

                Hence my comment that "Rome wasn't built in a day - but it took about a day to fall.". The moral of the story, of course, is that you allow greed to weaken your nation and disillusion your populace at your own peri
                • Rome has been sacked several times. Attributing the fall of Rome to one of these events is poppycock.

                         

                  • Rome has been sacked several times. Attributing the fall of Rome to one of these events is poppycock.

                    Interesting....to rephrase your statement in more immediate terms "The house has burned down several times; attributing the house burning down to a failure to prevent the house from burning down is poppycock."

          • by Amouth (879122)

            but we are determined to do it faster stronger better

          • by Thing 1 (178996)

            Bullocks. Rome took centuries to fall.

            It took millennia (billenia?) to fall, if you count the time involved gathering matter together, exploding it to make heavier elements (twice), then gathering it together again and having two planets collide to form our moon, the basis of life on this planet. So, you're also off by several orders of magnitude, if you wish to be adequately pedantic. Or, you could say it fell in a microsecond, that being the last decision the ruler made to doom it.

      • It is funny how that works. Here in America, we have become our worst enemies. Our retailers, esp. the big boxes, buy from guys that have factories back in China. And local retailers will not carry local stuff, even though they get loads of requests. So, they carry things like EXPENSIVE EU and japanese goods, or cheap chinese one.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by ibsteve2u (1184603)
          Thinking that is by intent: What better way for a big box retailer to ensure that their labor is cheap, than to destroy higher-paying manufacturing jobs that would - without question - successfully compete for their workers?
          • Of course, those big boxes are easy to destroy in china since the Chinese gov. LIMITS them. As such, the *marts are destroying their own set of customers. With this regard, the rest of the west is MUCH MUCH smarter than is America today.
        • Actually, the company had some customers that would only accept US-made product, after being burned by the quality coming out of our Chinese plant. In other cases Chinese product was shipped to the US plant for rework before going to the end user. I don't intend to generalize, but I spent close to two months working with our Chinese manufacturing engineers and found a real lack of analytical thinking and common-sense problem solving, along with a great reluctance to make vendors solve their quality issues
    • No single breakthrough will make solar power economically competitive, and it will not happen because "a facility in the PRC" is making solar cells in large unit volumes. The only people who talk that way are clueless PR writers and you.

      Large scale solar power of any type is going to be the result of a lot of innovation over an extended period of time, and it is going to have a long and expensive road to large scale deployment. That's true for large civic engineering projects in general.

      Your comment show

      • So since you think that this kind of post is meaningless and a waste of time, why don't you skip reading it and posting about it? You could spend your time marveling about how smart you are, and spare the rest of us having to read or reply to your drivel. You are wrong and we don't really care what you think, so STFU.

        In case it's not perfectly clear at this point, this is a personal attack. You're welcome.

        I rather hate to have to explain it to you as the very need attenuates your "personal attack" into nothingness, but my point is we develop the technology and then lose the opportunity to profit from it because the greed at the top will seek the higher profit margins available through utilizing the cheaper labor of the PRC instead of seeking to ensure the safety and security - the long term survival - of the United States of America.

        But to retrieve something of value to you from your "personal attack", you

      • I hasten to add that you can better - or at least personally - employ your fervor at http://cleanenergy.harvard.edu/ [harvard.edu]
  • by Wierdy1024 (902573) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @12:43PM (#38556620)

    The idea of removing impurities using light is cool if it increases the efficiency of the completed pannel.

    The premise of saving energy in the manufacture of the panels isn't really relevant. Currently producing silicon uses lots of energy, but it needen't really. The process really only involves heating and cooling of relatively small volumes of silicon, and if you were to design a machine to do it continuously, you could do it with nearly no energy. The raw materials are cold, the output is cold, and the processing in the middle is hot - use the energy from the finished product cooling down to heat new raw materials in a continuous process, as already done in a water Heat Exchanger.

    The reason this currently isn't done is because energy is a tiny cost in the production of silicon, and other things are far more important than recapturing a tiny amount of energy while the silicon cools down.

    • by JBMcB (73720) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @12:48PM (#38556642)

      The idea of removing impurities using light is cool if it increases the efficiency of the completed pannel.

      >

      Probably not. Getting very pure silicon is relatively easy. Even if it did, solar panel efficiency is so abysmal a few percentage points more isn't going to help.

      What they need to focus on is producing inverters more efficiently. Those things are *expensive*, and required if you want to rig solar panels into your existing household AC lines (and sell energy back to the grid.)

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 01, 2012 @12:56PM (#38556670)

        IGBT's are cheap. Capacitors are cheap. PWBs are cheap. Microcontrollers are cheap. You don't need big and expensive magnetics (transformers/inductors) if you are not doing voltage level up shifting. Inverters can be made very inexpensively if development costs are spread over enough units, but the material and production costs are relatively low compared to what companies charge for them, so the prices for these could fall significantly given enough competition in the market.

      • by Surt (22457) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:38PM (#38556914) Homepage Journal

        Solar panel efficiency is nearly good enough to make a lot of applications viable. If they can make the jump they claim from 16% to 20%, that would be huge. Needing 20% less roofspace/panels for the same power, and with the panels themselves cheaper to boot? It could bring the price of rooftop solar into the reach of millions more American households.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by benjamindees (441808)

        solar panel efficiency is so abysmal a few percentage points more isn't going to help.

        Utter nonsense. Photovoltaic efficiency is higher than every other end-to-end solar to electricity conversion process. It's higher than the dominant process (photosynthesis) by an order of magnitude.

        The problem with photovoltaics isn't efficiency. It's cost.

        • solar panel efficiency is so abysmal a few percentage points more isn't going to help.

          Utter nonsense. Photovoltaic efficiency is higher than every other end-to-end solar to electricity conversion process. It's higher than the dominant process (photosynthesis) by an order of magnitude.

          The problem with photovoltaics isn't efficiency. It's cost.

          Exactly. My parent's recently put about 9 kW of PV on their roof. This used up all the immediately available space, but it is far from the maximum one could actually fit into that area (which would be straight forward - instead of a conventional roof with an apex, you build a single pitched roof and blanket them onto that).

          But that 9kW cost $70,000 (with rebates). It's about the upper limit you can do on your own if you really want to make the most of it.

          Now if you could get the cost of the panels down enou

          • by Spoke (6112)

            The problem with photovoltaics isn't efficiency. It's cost.

            Exactly. My parent's recently put about 9 kW of PV on their roof. ...

            But that 9kW cost $70,000 (with rebates).

            Ouch - that's really expensive - must have done it at least 3-4 years ago if not more. Current costs are as low as $4.50 / watt and up to $6 / watt for a residential install - that would be $54k maximum and as low as $40k. And that's before rebates. At a minimum you'll get 30% off as a federal tax credit so that would put the price under $40k or nearly half the cost of what your parents paid.

            Now if you could get the cost of the panels down enough, that the option in my first paragraph were now viable - then I would bet that 90% of residential households out there could easily power all their electricity requirements from PV.

            Should be easily done today. But prices still aren't cheap enough. In most cases it's still not worth rebuilding

            • They did put in fairly high-cost panels. They'll pay for themselves since the NSW government had an absurdly generous rebate scheme, so we aimed to maximize the wattage (which requires high efficiency).

              That's the problem though - residential properties have fairly limited surface area available, so cost per watt is high since you also have to deal with square-meters.

              • by Spoke (6112)

                They did put in fairly high-cost panels. They'll pay for themselves since the NSW government had an absurdly generous rebate scheme, so we aimed to maximize the wattage (which requires high efficiency).

                Sure - if you want to maximize production you need the highest efficiency possible - but for most people, that's not the issue - the issue is the cost - and as I stated at least now in the US, costs are close to half the price that you quoted, though I suspect that prices are higher in NSW as things down under tend to cost more in general.

                That's the problem though - residential properties have fairly limited surface area available, so cost per watt is high since you also have to deal with square-meters.

                Perhaps in NSW they do, but I doubt that an extra 20-30% production (comparing "typical" panels at ~15% overall efficiency with high efficiency panels at ~20% overall effi

      • Instead of using an inverter why can't we just make our devices run on DC? The computer I am now on has to convert the AC to DC to work. I don't think it would be such a hard problem to make lights, heaters, refrigerators, stoves all run on DC. I am sure it would be a difficult transitional time but I think we could accomplish it.
        • Already done. (Score:4, Informative)

          by Colin Smith (2679) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @04:23PM (#38557980)

          Virtually all caravan and recreational vehicle/motor home devices are 12v.

          The problem is the amperage with a 12v supply.

        • by thegarbz (1787294)

          Your computer contains a switchmode regulator to convert AC to DC. Or to be more correct it contains probably around 15 of them. They are the same type of regulator that is used to convert DC to DC. You can't simply do away with the conversion.

          If you feed your computer 12VDC (and there are motherboards out there which already accept a 12VDC powerfeed), then you still need 5V, 3.3V, -5V -12V and that's just the voltages supplied by your ATX powersupply in your computer. Your motherboard additionally has regu

      • Yeah, jumping from 15-16% up to 20% while lowering costs is just not worth the effort. Why anytime that you get 25-33% improvement while dropping costs is just not worth it.

        ANd you wonder why America is losing out to China?
  • not another we'll-never-see-it solar breakthrough. I suppose highly-efficient batteries, flying cars, and fusion power will be the next stories.

    • Re:Arghh... (Score:4, Informative)

      by ibsteve2u (1184603) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @12:50PM (#38556654)
      Seeing as this breakthrough is as yet not even on the NREL RSS feed... http://www.nrel.gov/news/press/rss/rss.xml [nrel.gov] I reckon either somebody is "talking out of school" which likely means this technology will indeed show up in production in some other country other than NREL's source of funding first or it does not, indeed, exist.

      Still, one can always hope that Big Carbon's throttling grip may one day be broken...or even act upon that desire: http://cleanenergy.harvard.edu/ [harvard.edu]
    • by Jeremi (14640)

      not another we'll-never-see-it solar breakthrough. I suppose highly-efficient batteries, flying cars, and fusion power will be the next stories.

      Yes, you will probably see more technology articles on Slashdot. If you don't like technology articles, there are other sites [perezhilton.com]. that don't have them.

      ps you forgot to mention the space elevator stories ;^)

    • Re:Arghh... (Score:4, Informative)

      by ibsteve2u (1184603) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:41PM (#38556930)
      Further tracing of the story reveals it came out of a MIT publication on December 13th way back in 2011 [technologyreview.com] ;^)

      A much more creditable provenance regardless of the lack of information at NREL's website.
      • by riverat1 (1048260)

        Sour grapes here. I submitted the story to /. back then but it didn't make it.

        • Was it, perchance, bumped by a story about the Kardashians? ;^)
          • by riverat1 (1048260)

            LOL No, I probably just submitted it at the wrong time of day and it got passed over because of all the spam that was being submitted.

  • by Bender_ (179208) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:04PM (#38556716) Journal

    Unfortunately the article is dumbed down a lot, so it is not easy to understand what technology is actually supposed to be used. But this sound a lot like a Rapid Thermal Anneal [wikipedia.org] (RTA/RTP), which has been used for decades in semiconductor manufacturing. It has also been used a lot in lab environment to manufacture solar cells. It is possible that the energy consumption can be reduced, but the tool throughput and maintenance costs are quite a bit higher than that of a conventional furnace. I suppose that is why it did not catch on so far.

  • Are there any manufacturers of solar panels that uses solar power (ie from their own panels) for the manufacturing process?
  • "Optimal furnace bakes solar cells better" sounded more impressive.

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday January 01, 2012 @01:34PM (#38556878) Journal
    The true expense of Li-ion batteries is that they are heated to something like 900C. Hellish to say the least. Is there a way to lower that cost? That would drop the costs of li-ion batteries a great deal.
    • As pointed out earlier in the thread, a continuous process which uses outgoing product to pre-heat incoming materials can cut energy usage dramatically. This is the way it's done in many other industrial processes. The difficulty, of course, is how to recover heat from liquid materials as they cool into solids, while still producing a suitable end-product.

      • Generators?

        Personally, I have been thinking that GA's high temp thorium reactor would make good sense to use for li and other ingredient processing. Use the secondary heat for other processes, including electrical generation.
  • With this breakthrough, it will now be possible to create high performance solar furnaces for the production of solar cells. literally taking petrochemicals out of the equation and using sunlight to capture sunlight for power. This is a groundbreaking shift towards a solar economy. The implications are revolutionary.

    To date, the true cost of solar collection had to include the high cost in petroleum products to create the cells in the first place. This marks a new age of solar manufacture and will be most e

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