The future of solar technology may be closer to home than you think. Irish firm Nines Photovoltaics has invented a new process that will significantly reduce the cost of manufacturing solar cells.
Based in the Synergy Centre in the Institute of Technology Tallaght, Nines PV now has the means to produce test cells on a scale required by the industry, with a €1.5 million investment in a pilot-scale demonstrator that will allow it to trial the patented process for manufacturers.
Nines has gone back to basics to create its methods. Current technology uses a wet chemical process to etch away layers of silicon from a crystalline wafer to create solar cells. Nines’ new process is an atmospheric pressure dry etching technology that not only cuts costs but speeds up production, makes cells more efficient because they are darker and trap more light, and uses chemicals that are classed as having zero global warming potential.
It will also allow for inline factory processes, rather than batch processing, which is more expensive.
For manufacturers, the new process could cut costs by up to 25 per cent. For major producers, that could translate into €20 million in annual savings. In an industry that is fiercely competitive and has claimed a few scalps over the years, cutting costs and therefore increasing margins for manufacturers is a welcome thing.
“There is a massive pull to increase the margin,” Nines Photovoltaics founder and chief executive Edward Duffy said.
The company has been working on the technology for a couple of years, but Mr Duffy has significant experience in the semiconductor industry, and Nines' chief technology officer Laurent Clochard has been heavily involved in research and development, and technology transfer.
At an early stage, Nines got the industry involved, presenting ideas to gauge reaction.
“We took the risk of going too early, but feedback was important,” Mr Duffy said. After some tweaking, Nines came up with the dry etching procedure it is currently testing at its IT Tallaght base.
In 2013, the company shipped the first atmospheric dry etching research and development production system, capable of producing 50 to 60 wafers at a time, to Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, a solar research facility. But the development of the machine located at IT Tallaght is considered a milestone for the firm, as it is able to produce large-tier batches for companies.
In recent years, Chinese manufacturers have dominated the industry. An oversupply of solar panels has seen some players in the market shut down, unable to sustain business as prices fell significantly. Bankruptcies were filed and businesses disappeared; a solar boom in Germany, created in part by government subsidies, threatened to become a bust.
“It put a lot of pressure on European manufacturers and put a lot of people out of business,” Mr Duffy said. “It’s been very flat over the last five years.”
But he believes there is about to be an upswing in the market over the coming years.
“That capacity put in by the Chinese firms has now been eaten up,” he said. “There’s a shift now to retrofit the current capacity with new, low-cost solutions.”
He points to Elon Musk’s SolarCity as an indicator of how things may go – at least on the consumer side of things. Last year, Mr Musk unveiled a roof that was made up of solar panels, in the form of solar cells as tiles instead of traditional materials.
“The really exciting part for solar is when it becomes integrated into the building materials,” Mr Duffy said. “They need our technology to be able to do that, to make a dark cell so you can almost not see it when it’s built into a rooftop.”
There will also be huge demand from countries such as India, Mr Duffy predicted. Over the next couple of years, the addressable market opportunity for the dry etching production machines is estimated at more than $1 billion.
A 1GW production facility would require 10 of of the Nines PV machines; a lot of the bigger facilities would be multi-gigawatt facilities.
The company has already had interest from some of the major players in the industry. It has been supported by
through its High Potential Startup (HPSU) programme, received funding from the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and has been backed by IT Tallaght’s Department of Electronic Engineering.
"The partnership that has developed between Nines PV and our school of electronic engineering has proved to be very valuable," said IT Tallaght president Thomas Stone. "This is not only a valuable research project but also a means of promoting entrepreneurship among our researchers and students who see how their skills and expertise can be translated into successful technology ventures which are investor ready and targeted towards commercial success."
The company now has a Chinese agent working with it to liaise with the major Chinese solar firms.