Flexible Thin-film Solar photovoltaics

Thin film solar cells on the Japan Pavillion at the Shanghai expo
Thin-film solar cells installed on the Japan Pavillion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo

In a previous Solar Choice blog entry, Prateek Chourdia wrote about some emerging trends in the future of photovoltaic solar technology, including thin-film solar power. This entry will summarise some of the salient points regarding thin-film technologies, otherwise known as flexible photovoltaics, and discuss their possible future direction.

What is a thin-film solar photovoltaic cell?

Unlike the solar panels that you probably imagine when you think of solar power (monocrystalline and polycrystalline), thin-film technology is not composed of highly refined silicon crystals, but is instead one continuous material. There are four basic types of thin-film solar photovoltaics (TFPV), classified by the photovoltaic material that is used. The principle of TFPV, however, is the same as that of crystalline PV: light strikes the material and excites electrons, which then ‘flow’ through some permutation of a p-n junction, generating electricity which is captured and utilised.

Amorphous silicon (aSi) solar PV cells:

Amorphous silicon solar power, discussed briefly in our previous blog entry, was developed in the ’70s and is a made from a non-crystalline form of silicon, which results in lower efficiency per square meter–up to 15% in laboratory conditions, but generally 6-8% in real-life applications. (Compare this to 15-18% in crystalline silicon cells.) However, thanks to its flexible nature and their relatively lower susceptibility to the effects of overheating and shading, aSi has a number of everyday applications: it has already been used for decades in charging solar-powered calculators and watches, and more recently has been developed by a number of companies into solar PV roofing materials such as tiles and shingles.

Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) solar PV cells:

A smaller number of companies have developed solar cells made of Cadmium Telluride, developed in the 1990s, which promises to rival aSi for the place of the most cost-effective means of thin-film solar power generation, with laboratory efficiencies of 16% and 11% in real life. A flexible photovoltaic cell composed of this material with 12.4% efficiency was developed in 2009 by the Swiss Federal for Materials Testing in Switzerland. Cadmium is a relatively cheap and readily available material, but Telluride is one of the rarest elements on earth. (More about First Solar’s CdTe technology.)

Copper indium gallium selenide (CIS or CIGS) solar PV cells:

Copper indium gallium selenide was developed in the ’80s and, in addition to having a high heat tolerance, it also has one of the highest efficiencies for thin-film solar material–20% in lab conditions and 11% in real-life. (More about CIGS technology.)

Organic solar PV cells

Organic solar cells are made of materials that contain carbon. The cost of manufacture of organic cells is less expensive than from inorganic materials such as silicon, but this advantage is significantly offset by the fact that the solar conversion efficiency of these cells is only 8% in the laboratory and 4% in real life, and the fact that they tend to have a short production lifespan of 6 years.

What does the future hold for thin-film solar PV?

There are a number of factors that give promise to the future of thin-film PV. It has numerous applications: it can be used as a building material in the place of awnings, in conjunction with windows, and on walls. It is also useful for smaller, portable devices to be used in areas without readily available electricity: battery chargers in the middle of the desert or in rural areas (or even while camping!). TFPV may be rolled up in some cases and tucked away into a safe sheath or container, to be brought out when needed. In fact, among other organisations, the US military is already making use of portable photovoltaics for operations in areas where grid power is absent. On top of this, with appropriate life-cycle planning, some types of TFPV can be more easily recycled than crystalline cells.

Global Business Intelligence (GBI), a market research firm, predicts that thin-film technologies will become a major force in the solar power market by the year 2020. This realisation of this prediction will be predicated on corporations’ success in ensuring higher solar conversion efficiencies and longer lifespans of these technologies.

In any event, the thin-film PV industry is a rapidly evolving one, and new technologies are being experimented with by a number of different companies all the time. If you are looking to install or use these technologies, be sure to discuss them with the manufacturer, who should know best what the capabilities of each technology are.

Written by James Martin

Solar Choice Analyst

© 2010 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

Resources and Links:

MotherEarthNews.com, “The promise of thin film solar”

GBI Research: “Thin film photovoltaics market analysis to 2020”

SpecialtyFabricsReview.com: “Flexible Photovoltaics”

National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden Colorado, “High-efficiency CdTe and CIGS thin-film solar cells: highlights and challenges” (MS Word document)

Japan Pavillion image from TripAdvisor.com

Previous related Solar Choice blog entries: Emerging Trends in PV : Which type of solar panel should you choose? : Building-integrated PV : Roof-mounted solar system options

James Martin II

Contributor at Solar Choice
James was Solar Choice's primary writer & researcher between 2010 and 2018.

He is now the communications manager for energy technology startup SwitchDin, but remains an occasional contributor to the Solar Choice blog.

James lives in Newcastle in a house with a weird solar system.
James Martin II

Comments

  1. I am trying to decide which solar panels we should get. we are putting on a 5KW system. Roof space is not a problem. We live in Gympie where the temperature is often in the thirties and are concerned as to how well the monochrystalline panels will work in these conditions. Would we be better off with the thin film technology?

    1. Dear Tom,
      Hi Tom. Thank you for your comment.
      Generally speaking, thin-film photovoltaic technologies are more expensive than the standard crystalline panels that most people have on their roofs. The fact that crystalline panels are so prolific also means that they are tried-and-true and relatively inexpensive to produce. Thin-film panels, at this point in time, have many specialist applications but for a standard home roof retro-fit, the most common path is crystalline. It may actually be less expensive to get more crystalline panels which fare worse in the heat than less thin-film panels which deal better with the heat. For a bit more information on how to weigh your options, take a look at this previous blog entry. Best of luck.

      1. Tom, what did you end up installing? I’m curious, as live in Townsville and was considering them myself…read some of the suggested literature but mostly over 12 mths old….

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