The march toward viable alternative energies may have just taken a crucial step forward. Twin Creeks Technologies, a US-based solar energy startup, unveiled this week a new type of ultra-thin solar cell that cost half as much to produce as comparable cells. The drop in price could allow solar to serve as a practical alternative to fossil fuels.
The secret to Twin Creeks’ new solar cells is thinness. Most crystalline solar panels use sheets of silicon that are around 200 mircons thick, and are cut from blocks of silicon that measure about 600 microns thick. The process of cutting the silicon down to 200 microns results in massive waste. But Twin Creeks uses a hydrogen ion particle accelerator to create silicon solar wafers that measure a mere 20 microns thick, and are at least as efficient at turning sun rays into electricity as their 200-micron counterparts. The innovative production process creates almost no waste, and cuts the cost of solar cell production from about 80 cents per watt down to 40 cents per watt.
Here’s how Twin Creeks’ silicon wafer production works: Instead of using saws to cut solar wafers, Twin Creeks’ Hyperion manufacturing system uses high-energy beams of hydrogen ions, which are blasted at the thick plates of silicon. The hydrogen beam penetrates the silicon plate to between 10 and 20 microns, forming a layer of hydrogen gas at that specific depth. This gas then “exfoliates” a super-thin sheet of silicon, which is then peeled from the remaining silicon plate to create the silicon layer, called a “lamina,” that collect solar energy to be converted into electricity.
Based in Senatobia, Mississippi, Twin Creeks does not plan to make its own solar panels, reports Technology Review. Instead, the company hopes to sell its Hyperion manufacturing system to solar panel makers. Twin Creeks says its Hyperion technology is 90 percent more efficient than other wafer manufacturing techniques, and can be easily incorporated into already-existing solar factories.
So far, Twin Creeks has raised $93 million in venture capital, and has also received a loan from the state of Mississippi to build its factory. While the complete package needed to make solar a truly accessible alternative energy remains unfinished, it’s clear that Twin Creeks’ innovative manufacturing technology is a leap in the right direction.