Cutting the cost of manufacturing solar panels

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A Swansea University researcher has identified a way of cutting the cost of manufacturing solar panels, which could help make solar energy more competitive compared to energy derived from fossil fuels.

Professor Andrew Barron, Ser Cymru chair in engineering at Swansea University, has shown how changes in the manufacturing process for photovoltaic (PV) panels can reduce costs by up to 20%.  His research was published in the journal Materials Today. 
Prof Barron, who heads the University’s new Energy Safety Research Institute, which will be based on the new Bay campus, said:
“Both the US and China have a stated goal of further reducing the cost of solar-generated electricity.   We need to look at the cost  per kilowatt/hour of solar energy produced, just as we do with other energy sources – coal, oil, gas, nuclear – if solar is to compete.”   
Man installing solar panlesAlthough other materials are being developed for use in solar panels, silicon-based photovoltaic panels (PV) still account for around 85-90% of the solar market.    To work effectively, they need to absorb as much light as possible, which means that it is vital to reduce the amount of light they reflect.
Professor Barron explained:
“A key requirement for an efficient solar cell is a low surface reflectance, to maximise the amount of incident photons absorbed by the semiconductor, to convert the incident light into electrical energy”

Picture: PV solar panels being installed
Anti-reflection coatings are applied to panels to reduce the amount of light lost through reflectance.   The main coating that is currently in use cuts the amount of light reflected back from panels to around 2%.   So-called black silicon does even better as an anti-reflective coating, as it has a reflectance level of less than 1%
The‌ problem, however, is that black silicon has been very expensive to produce, which is where the new research finding can make a difference.  
Black silicon is often made using a process called metal-assisted chemical etching, which involves combining silicon with metal nanoparticles.  Professor Barron’s research shows that modifying this process, replacing hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) with phosphorous acid (H3PO3) as a reducing agent means that the same product - black silicon – can be produced using lower-cost chemicals.   
He calculates that the cost of producing a watt of electricity using this new process would fall to $013.5, compared to $0.17 under the existing method, a reduction of 20% in costs.
Solar power researchProfessor Barron concludes:
“It is this type of cost saving through the development of new materials processes that offers the best route to grid parity of solar with traditional carbon-based energy sources.”
Read the Materials Today article

About ESRI
The new Energy Safety Research Institute focuses on the safety issues surrounding the development and expansion of existing energy processes, as well as the safe deployment and integration of new 'green' energy technologies.
The design and construction of a new 3,800sqm building will enable the University to develop the quality and scale of its research efforts in the areas of energy and safety.
Find out more about ESRI