How Solar Panels are Made
Solar panels are a key component to a solar energy system. Many people interested in solar want to know how are solar panels made or want to know how to make a solar panel. There are different types of solar cells and each are made in a different way. Two types of solar panels are crystalline silicon panels and amorphous silicon panels. Listed below are the differences between different types of solar cells.
CRYSTALLINE SILICON SOLAR PANELS
The creation of solar panels typically involves cutting crystalline silicon into tiny disks less than a centimeter thick. These thin, wafer-like disks are then carefully polished and treated to repair and gloss any damage from the slicing process. After polishing, dopants (materials added to alter an electrical charge in a semiconductor or photovoltaic solar cell) and metal conductors are spread across each disk. The conductors are aligned in a thin, grid-like matrix on the top of the solar panel, and are spread in a flat, thin sheet on the side facing the earth.
To protect the solar panels after processing, a thin layer of cover glass is then bonded to the top of the photovoltaic cell. After the bonding of protective glass, the nearly-finished panel is attached to a subtrate by an expensive, thermally conductive cement. The thermally conductive property of the cement keep the solar panel from becoming overheated; any leftover energy that the solar panel is unable to convert to electricity would otherwise overheat the unit and reduce the efficiency of the solar cells.
Despite these protective measures against the tendancy of solar panels to overheat, it is vital that when installing a solar panel, additional steps should be taken to ensure the solar panel is kept cool. Elevating the solar panel above ground to let the airflow underneath cool the device.
AMORPHOUS SILICON SOLAR PANELS
Amorphous silicon solar panels are a powerful, emerging line of photovoltaics, that differ in output, structure, and manufacture than traditional photovoltaics which use crystalline silicon. Amorphous silicon solar cells, or A-si cells, are developed in a continuous roll-to-roll process by vapor-depositing silicon alloys in multiple layers, with each extremely thin layer specializing in the absorption of different parts of the solar spectrum. The result is record-breaking efficiency and reduced materials cost (A-si solar cells are typically thinner than their crystalline counterparts).
Some Amorphous Solar Panels also come with shade-resistant technology or multiple circuits within the cells, so that if an entire row of cells is subject to complete shading, the circuit won’t be completely broken and some output can still be gained. This is especially useful when installing solar panels on a boat.
The development process of Amorphous Silicon solar panels also renders them much less susceptible to breakage during transport or installation. This can help reduce the risk of damaging your significant investment in a photovoltaic system.
Both crystalline and amorphous silicon panels perform the same task of converting sunlight into usable energy but they differ in output, structure, and manufacturing processes. The amorphous process makes the panel less susceptible to breakage and thus might be the best option for those concerned about breaking their solar components.
Solar Panel Materials
Solar cells are typically named after the semiconducting material they are made of. These materials must have certain characteristics in order to absorb sunlight. Some cells are designed to handle sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface, while others are optimized for use in space. Solar cells can be made of only one single layer of light-absorbing material (single-junction) or use multiple physical configurations (multi-junctions) to take advantage of various absorption and charge separation mechanisms.
Solar cells can be classified into first, second and third generation cells. The first generation cells—also called conventional, traditional or wafer-based cells—are made of crystalline silicon, the commercially predominant PV technology, that includes materials such as polysilicon and monocrystalline silicon. Second generation cells are thin film solar cells, that include amorphous silicon, CdTe and CIGS cells and are commercially significant in utility-scale photovoltaic power stations, building integrated photovoltaics or in small stand-alone power system. The third generation of solar cells includes a number of thin-film technologies often described as emerging photovoltaics—most of them have not yet been commercially applied and are still in the research or development phase. Many use organic materials, often organometallic compounds as well as inorganic substances. Despite the fact that their efficiencies had been low and the stability of the absorber material was often too short for commercial applications, there is a lot of research invested into these technologies as they promise to achieve the goal of producing low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells.
By far, the most prevalent bulk material for solar cells is crystalline silicon (c-Si), also known as “solar grade silicon”. Bulk silicon is separated into multiple categories according to crystallinity and crystal size in the resulting ingot, ribbon or wafer. These cells are entirely based around the concept of a p-n junction. Solar cells made of c-Si are made from wafers between 160 to 240 micrometers thick.
- Monocrystalline silicon (mono-Si) solar cells are more efficient and more expensive than most other types of cells. The corners of the cells look clipped, like an octagon, because the wafer material is cut from cylindrical ingots, that are typically grown by the Czochralski process. Solar panels using mono-Si cells display a distinctive pattern of small white diamonds.
Epitaxial wafers can be grown on a monocrystalline silicon “seed” wafer by atmospheric-pressure CVD in a high-throughput inline process, and then detached as self-supporting wafers of some standard thickness (e.g., 250 µm) that can be manipulated by hand, and directly substituted for wafer cells cut from monocrystalline silicon ingots. Solar cells made with this technique can have efficiencies approaching those of wafer-cut cells, but at appreciably lower cost.
- Polycrystalline silicon, or multicrystalline silicon (multi-Si) cells are made from cast square ingots—large blocks of molten silicon carefully cooled and solidified. They consist of small crystals giving the material its typical metal flake effect. Polysilicon cells are the most common type used in photovoltaics and are less expensive, but also less efficient, than those made from monocrystalline silicon.
- Ribbon silicon is a type of polycrystalline silicon—it is formed by drawing flat thin films from molten silicon and results in a polycrystalline structure. These cells are cheaper to make than multi-Si, due to a great reduction in silicon waste, as this approach does not require sawing from ingots. However, they are also less efficient.
Mono-like-multi silicon (MLM)
- This form was developed in the 2000s and introduced commercially around 2009. Also called cast-mono, this design uses polycrystalline casting chambers with small “seeds” of mono material. The result is a bulk mono-like material that is polycrystalline around the outsides. When sliced for processing, the inner sections are high-efficiency mono-like cells (but square instead of “clipped”), while the outer edges are sold as conventional poly. This production method results in mono-like cells at poly-like prices.
Thin-film technologies reduce the amount of active material in a cell. Most designs sandwich active material between two panes of glass. Since silicon solar panels only use one pane of glass, thin film panels are approximately twice as heavy as crystalline silicon panels, although they have a smaller ecological impact (determined from life cycle analysis). The majority of film panels have 2-3 percentage points lower conversion efficiencies than crystalline silicon. Cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide(CIGS) and amorphous silicon (a-Si) are three thin-film technologies often used for outdoor applications. As of December 2013, CdTe cost per installed watt was $0.59 as reported by First Solar. CIGS technology laboratory demonstrations reached 20.4% conversion efficiency as of December 2013. The lab efficiency of GaAs thin film technology topped 28%. The quantum efficiency of thin film solar cells is also lower due to reduced number of collected charge carriers per incident photon. Most recently, CZTS solar cell emerge as the less-toxic thin film solar cell technology, which achieved ~12% efficiency. Thin film solar cells are increasing due to it being silent, renewable and solar energy being the most abundant energy source on Earth.
- Cadmium telluride is the only thin film material so far to rival crystalline silicon in cost/watt. However cadmium is highly toxic and tellurium (anion: “telluride”) supplies are limited. The cadmium present in the cells would be toxic if released. However, release is impossible during normal operation of the cells and is unlikely during ﬁres in residential roofs. A square meter of CdTe contains approximately the same amount of Cd as a single C cell nickel-cadmium battery, in a more stable and less soluble form.
Copper indium gallium selenide
- Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) is a direct band gap material. It has the highest efficiency (~20%) among all commercially significant thin film materials (see CIGS solar cell). Traditional methods of fabrication involve vacuum processes including co-evaporation and sputtering. Recent developments at IBM and Nanosolar attempt to lower the cost by using non-vacuum solution processes.
Silicon thin film
- Silicon thin-film cells are mainly deposited by chemical vapor deposition (typically plasma-enhanced, PE-CVD) from silane gas and hydrogen gas. Depending on the deposition parameters, this can yield amorphous silicon (a-Si or a-Si:H), protocrystalline silicon or nanocrystalline silicon (nc-Si or nc-Si:H), also called microcrystalline silicon.
- Amorphous silicon is the most well-developed thin film technology to-date. An amorphous silicon (a-Si) solar cell is made of non-crystalline or microcrystalline silicon. Amorphous silicon has a higher bandgap (1.7 eV) than crystalline silicon (c-Si) (1.1 eV), which means it absorbs the visible part of the solar spectrum more strongly than the higher power density infrared portion of the spectrum. The production of a-Si thin film solar cells uses glass as a substrate and deposits a very thin layer of silicon by plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD).
- Protocrystalline silicon with a low volume fraction of nanocrystalline silicon is optimal for high open circuit voltage. Nc-Si has about the same bandgap as c-Si and nc-Si and a-Si can advantageously be combined in thin layers, creating a layered cell called a tandem cell. The top cell in a-Si absorbs the visible light and leaves the infrared part of the spectrum for the bottom cell in nc-Si.
Gallium arsenide thin film
- The semiconductor material Gallium arsenide (GaAs) is also used for single-crystalline thin film solar cells. Although GaAs cells are very expensive, they hold the world’s record in efficiency for a single-junction solar cell at 28.8%. GaAs is more commonly used in multijunction photovoltaic cells for concentrated photovoltaics (CPV, HCPV) and for solar panels on spacecrafts, as the industry favours efficiency over cost for space-based solar power.
Multi-junction cells consist of multiple thin films, each essentially a solar cell grown on top of each other, typically using metalorganic vapour phase epitaxy. Each layers has a different band gap energy to allow it to absorb electromagnetic radiation over a different portion of the spectrum. Multi-junction cells were originally developed for special applications such as satellites and space exploration, but are now used increasingly in terrestrial concentrator photovoltaics (CPV), an emerging technology that uses lenses and curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto small but highly efficient multi-junction solar cells. By concentrating sunlight up to a thousand times,High concentrated photovoltaics (HCPV) has the potential to outcompete conventional solar PV in the future.
Tandem solar cells based on monolithic, series connected, gallium indium phosphide (GaInP), gallium arsenide (GaAs), and germanium (Ge) p–n junctions, are increasing sales, despite cost pressures. Between December 2006 and December 2007, the cost of 4N gallium metal rose from about $350 per kg to $680 per kg. Additionally, germanium metal prices have risen substantially to $1000–1200 per kg this year. Those materials include gallium (4N, 6N and 7N Ga), arsenic (4N, 6N and 7N) and germanium, pyrolitic boron nitride (pBN) crucibles for growing crystals, and boron oxide, these products are critical to the entire substrate manufacturing industry.
A triple-junction cell, for example, may consist of the semiconductors: GaAs, Ge, and GaInP. Triple-junction GaAs solar cells were used as the power source of the Dutch four-time World Solar Challenge winners Nuna in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and by the Dutch solar cars Solutra (2005), Twente One (2007) and 21Revolution (2009). GaAs based multi-junction devices are the most efficient solar cells to date. On 15 October 2012, triple junction metamorphic cells reached a record high of 44%.
The Making of Solar Panels
Different methods to making solar panels produce a wide range of options to choose from when deciding on a solar panel to use. Different cells comes with different efficiency ratings and price tags. Gallium arsenide holds the world record in efficiency at 28.8% for a single-junction solar cell. The most commercially significant thin film, Copper indium gallium selenide, has an efficiency of around 20%.