IBM’s New Solar Cell is Made from Abundant Materials
Thin-film solar cells, despite having a lower efficiency value than standard rigid panels, still hold a huge potential for the future of solar energy development. For one thing, it is lightweight, practically flexible, and can be installed in many different kinds of surfaces. It also has the improved functionality and versatility that might make it a more economic option with the right setting.
But even as thin-film solar cells continue to grow in efficiency, it would still have to face another problem should its use become widespread in the future: the eventual scarcity of the raw materials used to create it. IBM does not seem to be concerned with this however, because they have apparently created a brand new thin-film type solar cell that uses a set of materials that are much more abundant than the typical “ingredients”.
The most common “mix” that is used to create thin film solar cells is called CIGS. The acronym stands for its component metal -copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. This type of thin film solar cell is currently the most efficient call developed thus far. Unfortunately though, these metals can only be produced when they are obtained as a byproduct of another metal extraction process. Economically speaking, there is no way to ramp up its production (extract the metals exclusively), and if the demand for CIGS solar cells rises in the future, we would be left with no direct way to provide an adequate supply.
That is where the innovation of IBM’s research comes in to play. With the partnership of Tokyo Ohka Kogyo, DelSolar, and Solar Frontier, they were able to formulate a viable alternative to the CIGS solar cell. This new solar cell uses abundant materials, and materials that can be directly procured or extracted. They named it as the CZTS solar cell, after its component materials copper zinc, tin and selenium. The efficiency of the CZTS cell is not as high as the best CIGS solar cells, but is set at a relatively impressive (for its own solar cell type) rate of 11%.
Raw efficiency is not the most important aspect of the CZTS solar cell though, and it has other positive points that could make it a better choice than the CIGS solar cell in certain standards. First of all, no high material purification is necessary and secondly, it is composed of abundant metals. Along with the first advantage, its price can be driven lower than that of standard thin film solar cells. And the third positive aspect of these solar cells is that they can be manufacturing relatively easy. IBM even claims that the cells could be produced using simple printing or casting techniques. All of these three technical advantages make the CZTS solar cell a great solar cell to mass produce, making it possible to arbitrarily negate its lower efficiency value, as more cells can be installed with it.
Probably the most important part of this research in my opinion, is how these solar cells could help make solar power more available to everyone. In the future, should these types of cheap solar cells be developed further, we may see the emergence of scalable “solar cell packs”, that could simply be purchased at your local hardware store and set up with a few technical instructions from a handy hobby manual.
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