Why thinking small can yield big returns.
Lori A. Burkhart is Fortnightly’s managing editor.
Fortnightly: How does nanotechnology improve utility-scale solar technology options on the market today?
Splinter, Applied Materials: Applied Materials’ core capabilities relate to thin-film engineering: Depositing thin films, etching them, polishing them, measuring them and even manipulating them one atomic layer at a time. Nanomanufacturing is a branch of nanotechnology and involves turning incredible science into high-volume production. We have 40 years of nanomanufacturing experience in the semiconductor industry, flat panel display and more recently in solar photovoltaics (PV). During this time, we have worked closely with customers to bring scale to these industries. It is scale that has driven the phenomenal cost reductions that made advanced electronics affordable and accessible in turn changing the way people live, work and communicate. Solar PV has the potential to have an even greater global impact and the technology is viable now. What is needed is the expertise, passion and political will to create the scale that will make the solar power mainstream, affordable, and self-sustaining.
Fortnightly: What utility-scale projects is your company presently involved with?
Applied Materials is the largest equipment maker for both thin-film and crystalline-silicon solar PV. We sell the tools and our customers use those tools to make the panels; we don’t make the panels themselves. For utility-scale applications, we have specifically designed a turnkey equipment line named SunFab. This is essentially a “factory in a box” that manufactures the world’s largest (5.7m2) thin-film panels, which are ideally suited for ground-mounted installations. Today, SunFab panels are being used in 70 MW of large-scale projects across Europe and Asia, with an additional 400 MW currently in the planning phase. Notable however, is the absence of projects here in the United States. Establishing a robust renewable industry in the United States is going to require focus on three clear policy goals: Increasing the total amount of clean energy generation, incentivizing local manufacturing, and creating a stable business climate where the rules and regulations are predictable over time.
Fortnightly: What are the primary nanotechnology challenges affecting the performance and cost of utility-scale solar generating facilities?
For large-scale generation facilities, the challenges include raising conversion efficiencies, decreasing the costs of installing solar modules in the field, and guaranteeing the durability and lifetime of installed solar systems. Although most of the materials used in PV today are well known and proven, some new combinations of materials resulting from nanotechnology R&D are being introduced to improve conversion efficiencies and drive down manufacturing costs.
Further, nanotechnology, or rather nanomanufacturing technology, enables the precise deposition of materials over large areas. This allows larger solar modules to be produced more cost effectively and these large-area solar modules are cheaper to install at a utility scale. In something of a linguistic twist, nanotechnology enables mega-modules that cut costs for megawatt solar projects.
Fortnightly: What do you see as the most promising areas of near-term development for nanotechnology? How are they addressing solar performance and cost challenges?
Splinter: Opportunities for applying nanotechnology to the performance and cost challenges of utility-scale solar extend from increasing the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies of solar modules to decreasing the area-related costs of fabricating solar modules.
Increasing the conversion efficiency of solar modules is centered around material science; using new materials and improving the quality of the materials used to construct the solar cells. For example, near-term nanotechnology developments are yielding films that provide enhanced light-trapping properties and films that can better convert a wider range of incident light wavelengths into electricity.
Fortnightly: What are the most interesting ‘blue sky’ technologies for utilities to watch? What nanotechnology advancements might change the game for solar energy in the next five years?
The next wave of energy technologies will stem from disruptive advances in materials science while their commercialization depends on rapidly moving from the laboratory to high-volume production. For example, advances in low cost Lithium battery technology can reduce storage costs from the current $2,000 to under $500 per kW installed, improving the practicality of electric vehicle. Similar advances in utility-scale energy storage can reduce costs from $1,000 per kW today to below $100 per kW installed. Such breakthroughs in energy storage would enable solar to supply base load electricity, creating additional demand for solar generating capacity.