Nanotechnology may no longer be the “wave of the future.” If Nanosolar has anything to say about it (and they do), that future is now. A very secretive company up until now, Nanosolar has finally opened its doors, albeit briefly, to showcase the making of a unique solar cell. The company projects that the cell will be produced at one-tenth the cost of conventional silicon solar cells.
The Nanosolar Cell
The world of Nanosolar revolves around a very special ink and rolls of tin foil. The “ink” is their groundbreaking cadmium-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) solar cell solution. The tin foil is the substrate on which Nanosolar “prints” their ink to make thin, flexible and efficient solar cells.
It’s that “printing press” production style that has Nanosolar attracting all sorts of attention, including $4.1 billion in backlog orders to be filled and the millions in funding they’ve secured over years of development. Part of that development has been a carefully planned transfer to mass production. They already have one assembly plant in San Jose, California and with the opening of the new plant in Germany, are producing at a rate of one million solar cells per month. The new plant near Berlin can reportedly churn out one solar panel every 10 seconds, at which the factory could produce a capacity of 640 MW per year if run round the clock (see a video of the process here).
The Nanosolar Panel
So we’ve established that Nanosolar is making a groundbreaking solar cell that is thin and printed on flexible foil rather than glass (like its thin-film counterpart First Solar). The next logical inquiry is in regards to the finished product. Right now, that product is the Nanosolar Utility Panel. It’s a panel designed for commercial installations but is not your typical product.
Their solar foil is hermetically sealed between two tempered glass sheets that are strong and durable enough to eliminate the need for bulky aluminum frames, making Nanosolar modules some of the sleekest on the thin-film market. There is a panel for the retail market in the works.
The Nanosolar Advantage
There are a number of advantages for Nanosolar’s new CIGS solar modules. Not least of these being conversion efficiency. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tested Nanosolar’s cells at 16.4% peak efficiency with a median, real world efficiency just over 11%, edging out First Solar’s 10.8%. These numbers are excellent for thin-film modules, if still considerably lower than median efficiencies for traditional silicon solar panels (typically around 16%). Although that difference is made up for in production cost, which for Nanosolar is roughly half that of conventional panels and perhaps even less as production ramps up.
Nanosolar has really done their homework over these last few years of secrecy, culminating in a well-structured move into mass production. Across the board, their numbers are better than the competition. If they can reproduce the success of the Nanosolar Utility Panel with whatever residential product they develop, they may well take over the thin-film solar industry, especially with cost projections 10 times cheaper than traditional silicon and capital efficiency three times that of First Solar.