Intelligent Energy

Using atoms as a scalpel to cut silicon solar cell costs in half

Using atoms as a scalpel to cut silicon solar cell costs in half

Posting in Energy

Twin Creeks Technologies came out of stealth mode to unveil high-energy ion equipment that makes uber-thin wafers of crystalline silicon.

Twin Creeks Technologies came out of stealth mode today to unveil Hyperion, a high-energy ion accelerator that makes uber-thin wafers of crystalline silicon that it says will cut the cost of solar cells in half.

The wafer production machine will save solar manufacturers money in two ways: by significantly reducing the amount of silicon used and the need for expensive manufacturing equipment. If Twin Creeks' machine does what the company claims, it could help solar module makers that are struggling to stay afloat in an oversupplied market where panels prices have plummeted at or below manufacturing costs.

Right now, solar panels sell for less than a $1 per watt. That bodes well for installers and customers. Sales might be up for solar module makers, but so are their costs, which have had a subsequent drag on profits. Twin Creeks says its equipment would allow manufacturers to produce solar cells for less than $0.40 cents a watt in commercial-scale volume production facilities.

How Hyperion works

Typically, wafers are made by cutting blocks of silicon into wafers about 200 microns thick, a process that involves a lot of equipment (saws, furnaces etc.) and wastes a lot of silicon.

Hyperion uses a technology called Proton Induced Exfoliation, which essentially uses atoms as a scalpel. First, the Hyperion exposes the wafer to a uniform beam of high-energy hydrogen ions, which are then embedded into a precise depth below the surface of the "donor" wafer.

When heated, the ions expands and lifts, splitting the top surface from the donor wafer to form an ultra-thin wafer that is otherwise identical to the original, according to Twin Creeks. The ultra-thin wafer can be processed into thin solar cells or semiconductor devices.

The  San Jose-based company built a 25-megawatt capacity commercial demonstration plant in Senatobia, Mississippi. Eventually, Twin Creeks wants to increase its capacity to 100 megawatts -- an expansion that will likely come as a result of a partnership with a solar manufacturer. It also has set its sights on building facilities in Malaysia through a joint venture, although a company spokesman told me there currently is no partner.

What's so promising about this machine is its numerous applications. In other words, Twin Creeks isn't limited by interest from solar panels makers. For example, the machine could also be used to make super thin LEDs, a company spokesman told me today.

Photo: Twin Creeks Technologies

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure