A week of thin-film hype: Dyesol, Natcore and RSI

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Despite a long list of thin-film company failures and retrenchments over the last few years, several start-ups continue to tout their technology offerings ahead of actual commercialisation.

No that long ago commercialisation was simply seen as a stepping stone, providing few hurdles to building production lines and ramping production.

However, companies started failing at this critical stage in a start-up’s life that became known as the ‘Valley of Death’ moment. Bridging the gap between R&D and volume production required different disciplines, lots more capital and a final product that could compete in a highly competitive market.

First-phase thin-film start-ups still exist but few are in a healthy financial position. One of the most over-hyped, Nanosolar, is now selling its production equipment in the US and just sold its small European production site in Germany to unnamed investors looking to produce conventional c-Si modules instead of CIGS modules.

Second phase entrants such as TSMC Solar have yet to bring the full force of its large capabilities together to compete with key players, First Solar and Solar Frontier, while the likes of Dyesol, Natcore and RSI remain at various stages of pre-Valley of Death.

That’s probably why these three companies feel compelled to use hype language in all their press releases, seeking more attention than is perhaps justified in the bigger picture of the PV sector.

US-based RSI is attempting to avoid the Valley of Death scenario by adopting a technology and equipment licensing business model, offering a “virtual turnkey” line approach, while punting its offerings to potential customers.

This week the company announced at Intersolar North America that it was displaying the world’s “most powerful” CdTe thin-film module. The first problem with that claim was that they didn’t get around (or did they just forget?) to pointing out what the module efficiency was.

Also touting its “large area” module size (1.5sq M) tried to claim it was superior to “conventional CdTe modules” (First Solar perhaps) that measure only 0.72 square meters.

Touting its superior substrate size as providing lower cost installations reminded me of a somewhat larger substrate size developed by Applied Materials. Same claims but same problem – standardisation.

“The math is simple for large-area modules,” said RSI co-founder and president Kurt Weiner. “At each step in the manufacturing process we are moving more Watts for a given capex, materials and labour cost. At the end, our panels produce significantly more power so they’re cheaper to install. When we founded the company we recognised that in thin film, you needed larger panel sizes with higher power outputs, in addition to efficiency, to truly differentiate against silicon. We’ve achieved both at RSI.”

First Solar was fortunate that its small-sized module was a huge success and was able to create a complete BOS infrastructure that, with scale, is highly competitive. RSI has a long way to go to back up its claims.

Inorganic flexible thin-film start-up, Natcore Technology, said the week of Intersolar North America that it had produced its first solar cell using its liquid phase deposition (LPD) process.

The work was carried out in a lab at Rice University by Natcore co-founder, Professor Andrew R. Barron.

The company claimed that its first cell employed a cadmium/selenium (CdSe) absorber layer grown on a single-walled carbon nanotube (SWNT)-derived back contact substrate.

“The resulting photovoltaic device shows a characteristic IV curve that confirms the potential for this process to form a flexible solar cell,” cited the press release but didn’t provide specifics, though the results we can only assume are in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, volume 15, pages 3930-3938, should you be a subscriber.

“This is a most important milestone along the way to a low-cost flexible solar cell,” said Natcore's CEO/president Chuck Provini in the press release, but again lacked any back-up details.

The company is planning to take its multi-junction tandem solar cell and CdSe/SWNT absorber layers to the next phase which is to further combine and enhance the cell in Natcore’s own lab.

“Our next step,” added Provini, “is to improve the quality and efficiency of the cell. Now we'll move the work from Dr. Andy Barron's lab at Rice to our own lab in Rochester. If we had adequate funds and adequate manpower, we could have a commercial-quality cell within a year.”

From lab to fab in one year is a bold statement indeed.

And finally, let us turn our attention to dye solar cell (DSC) developer Dyesol, which claimed in a convoluted way that it had achieved a record cell efficiency of 15% for a solid-state DSC.

Importantly it should be noted that the results were not said to have been verified by a third party.

Professor Graetzel at the Swiss technology polytechnic, EPFL undertook the work.

“Our research work on solid-state dye sensitised solar cells is now achieving efficiencies exceeding 15% and our cells have been externally validated with a world record of 14.1%.  At these efficiencies the technology is extremely competitive with conventional solar cells particularly when you consider dye sensitised solar cells do not need perfect sunlight conditions to effectively produce energy.  In the task of scale up from small laboratory sized cells to industrial scale, we are particularly encouraged by the program from Dyesol to allow commercial deployment of this game changing technology in the shortest possible timeframe.”

DSC is also known as the Gratzel cell, while the professor is the chairman of Dyesol's Technology Advisory Board.

Dyesol's key contribution to the claimed record was its supply of materials and specially formulated 18NR-T Titania Paste, according to the press release.

All good stuff, but this solid-state DSC cell is very much the next-generation of Dyesol’s technology and its first generation (liquid-based) has yet to be commercialised.

On a more positive note, one of the key reasons why the PV industry has a great future is that it can offer multiple technologies to provide the right product for a given application. Innovation is therefore a cornerstone requirement for its future prosperity.

Should all three companies get to effectively commercialise their technologies then the PV industry will be better for it. Yet they don’t need to hype their product offerings to achieve success.

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