Sustainable Thin Film Solar Cells Explained
If we want to help rectify some of the damage we’ve caused to the planet after decades of plastic production, rising populations and intense greenhouse gas emissions, we need to find more renewable energy sources.
Cutting down on our carbon footprint won’t be enough to sort out the mess we’ve made, but if we all collectively put our time, effort, and resources into more sustainable power sources, we can make a big difference.
One way that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels is by using alternative energy generators such as solar panels. Here’s how thin films could be the answer to even better solution.
Different Types of Thin Film Solar Cells
There are three main types of thin film solar panels that are used to generate clean energy to power our homes and businesses. Each type is slightly different and provides varying benefits to the user.
Amorphous Silicon (a-Si) thin-film
Although there was a lot of excitement around this solar cell solution, there has been many issues surrounding weak bonds and poor energy efficiency.
The manufacturing process can be long and expensive, which is one of the main reasons why this form of thin film is not more widely used.
Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin-film
First introduced in 1972, Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin-film is most commonly used in applications where manufacturing costs need to be kept to a minimum, without compromising on efficiency.
To create these thin films, manufactuers will use a vapor-transport deposition or the close-spaced sublimation technique to apply the thin film onto a material, like glass.
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS)
Manufactured by placing a molybdenum (Mo) electrode layer over a substrate layer through a sputtering process, these types of thin films are most commonly used in aerospace applications.
This is because they are resistant to low temperatures and maintain their performance even in low-intensity light conditions.
How thin-film solar cells are made?
Thin films are made through a deposition process; either chemical vapour deposition or physical vapour deposition.
The whole process takes place within a vacuum chamber and, through using very high temperatures, a material is vaporised until it’s turned into a gas. At this point, it will then be layered on a target material atom by atom to form the thin film layer.
Thin film solar panels are made up of multiple layers of photovoltaic materials that are laid on a solid material. These panels then absorb sunlight and turn it into energy that can be used to power vehicles, homes, or electronic devices.
When & where are thin-film solar cells used?
Because of their flexibility, there are a whole range of different thin film solar cells applications that many industries can benefit from.
Here are some of the most popular, current uses of thin film technology:
- Building integrations: solar panels used on roofs that offer both energy efficiency and aesthetics.
- Aerospace: Durable thin films are suited for use in space where materials come under extreme pressure and diverse environments.
- Large-scale projects: Thin films offer a cost-effective solution to covering large surfaces with solar panels.
- Automotive and marine vehicles: Thin film solar cells can be placed on top of cars, buses, decks of boats etc. to maximise solar power generation.
- Portable devices: Because thin film solar cells are so lightweight, they can be used in portable devices without adding any additional weight or size.
How efficient thin film solar cells and how long do they last?
Solar panels are traditionally made using a lot of silicone, which is not the most sustainable and efficient material to use on a large scale; it can be heavy, expensive and not very efficient.
Thin film solar panels are one of the most popular alternatives as they can be made to be much lighter, which in turn makes them more affordable and accessible to use in large-scale applications.
Although thin films may provide superior performance and a cheaper alternative, it’s not a perfect solution to generating clean energy.
The manufacturing process of creating thin film solar cells is very labour intensive and mostly uses a lot of are-earth elements such as indium and gallium or toxic metals such as cadmium.
Plus, when it comes to the point where the solar cells have come to the end of their usable life, the process of disposing them is equally as complex as they’re manufacturing process. This means that although the solar cells may offer a sustainable way to turn the sun’s rays into energy, they are not a completely sustainable option.
However, solar panels are generally a better alternative and can last a lot longer than your traditional solar panels. As the technology continues to advance, we can only expect to see more improvements in thin films.
In this article, we’e taken you through everything you need to know about sustainable thin film solar cells.
Do you think that thin film technology could be our answer to a more sustainable future?