Intelligent Energy

Cheaper solar energy? Bring in the robots

Posting in Energy

Robots at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory quicken the pace for the industry to make, test and tweak new solar cells.

Robots have been called into action in the solar industry's quest to compete economically with fossil fuels. Streamlining the production, testing, and improving of solar cells could lead to better and cheaper technologies.

The Process Development and Integration Laboratory at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has put six robots to work accomplishing what once took five labs to do. In six bays, these robots create and analyze thin-film solar cells within a vacuum-sealed setting.

Comprised of three layers, solar cells are about as thick as one-seventh of a human hair. Processing each layer used to need a separate machine, and the transfer between them put the plate at risk from humidity and contamination. Now, robotic precision under a controlled environment will help companies test and experiment with new formulas.

And importantly, they'll be able to do it speedier than ever.

NREL writes:

The robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in about 35 minutes. It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process.

The bays are devoted to silicon, stand-alone characterization, integrated characterization, atmospheric processing, copper indium gallium diSelenide (CIGS), and cadmium-telluride. Companies can connect their own tools to each bay, which then fabricates the cells, scans for glitches, and measures light absorption, among other tasks shuffled via a central robot.

Able to test different cells throughout the production process, the NREL hopes to advise solar companies to what recipes (more heat here, less metal there, now a splash of this chemical) would maximize their cell's performance.

The goal of the testing facility? Smaller solar cells made from cheaper materials that can reach a 16 percent efficiency level—20 percent is current high—made fast, fast, fast.

Here's a video explaining how it works.

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure