Archives for posts with tag: thin-film

At the 39th Photovoltaic Specialist Conference in Tampa, Florida, there were two important and interesting topics which were of particular interest to me.

The first one was covered by Harry A. Atwater, California Institute of Technology ( “Full Spectrum High Efficiency Photovoltaics” [1]. He was discussing a new concept: splitting the incident solar spectrum into its constituent wavelengths, guiding these different wavelengths into solar cells with different bandgaps, then absorbing them (shown in Figure 1). In theory, the efficiency of such thin film solar cell system can range from around 30% to over 50%. One way of splitting incident light is to use specially engineered nanostructures printed on the surface of a solar cell or planar holographic elements. In the latter case, the solar spectrum is split four ways via a stack of three sinusoidal volume Bragg gratings, where three bands are diffracted at different angles and the 4th band passes through un-diffracted. Four such stacks guide each band to the appropriate solar cell. Each solar cell is composed of two lattice-matched and current matched III-V subcells grown on either GaAs or InP substrates. In addition, because the diffraction grating is sensitive to the incident angle of incoming light, to achieve high concentration with spectrum splitting, a two-stage compound parabolic concentrator (CPC) is used after the holographic elements. The parameters for the primary and second CPC are carefully optimized.

Figure 1 of Xianqin's blog

Figure 1. A scheme illustrating the geometry of eight- junction holographic spectrum-splitting cell with indicated band-gaps and materials

The second topic that was of great interest to me was the progress made in developing flexible thin film solar cells. Since there are an increasing numbers of applications for photovoltaic devices that demand flexible, lightweight solar cells, the research on thin film solar cells on flexible substrates is attracting a lot of attention. The greatest challenge is to lower the cost of production of such devices while maintaining good efficiency in light conversion. There were quite a few talks and posters about this interesting topic during the conference in which the ideas of using tape, metal or polymer as a flexible substrate were discussed [2,3].   I found Kelly Trautz’ talk [2] on epitaxial lift-off (ELO) technology used in MicroLink’s solar cells particularly interesting because it allows flexible solar panels to be made. It also allows one to reuse the substrates on which the cells are grown multiple times.

Xianqin's picture

-Xianqin Meng

Postdoctoral Fellow

Department of Engineering Physics

McMaster University


[1] H.A. Atwater et all. “Full Spectrum Ultrahigh Efficiency Photovoltaics”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

[2] Kelly Trautz et all, “High Efficiency Flexible Solar Panels”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

[3] B. M. Kayes, L. Zhang, R. Twist, I.-K. Ding, and G. S. Higashi, “ Flexible Thin-Film Tandem Solar Cells with >30% Efficiency”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

I had the opportunity to go to PVSC 39 in Tampa, Florida with fellow Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP). There were a lot of interesting speeches but I will only focus on a couple of them here – particularly those focusing on CdTe thin films progress. CdTe is one of the most attractive materials for production of low cost thin film solar modules [1]. The record efficiency for CdTe solar cells has been established to be 16.7% for 10 years. In the past 2 years, the CdTe record was broken several times and increased from 16.7% to 18.7%. However, there has been no significant change in the open-circuit voltage which was in the range of 840-860 mV for over 20 years. Many arguments have been made to justify the apparent Voc limitation, most frequently: poor hetero-interface with CdS, the difficulty in doping polycrystalline CdTe, midgap defect levels, or non-uniformities at the nano- or micro-scale. Paths for open-circuit voltage above 900 mV are:

  • Doping: Increasing doping level of CdTe is believed to increase the built-in potential and reduce recombination at the back-surface. Present doping levels are of the order 1014 /cm3 and different ways are proposed to increase them.
  • Lifetime: Higher lifetime(s) are expected to be a sign of less recombination in the junction and quasi-neutral region, and, hence, improved Voc and carrier collection. With higher lifetime, it is expected that a greater fraction of the recombination may occur at the back-contact due to increased electron diffusion through the absorber.

Gloeckler from First Solar announced a new record efficiency of 19.1% for CdTe, although not yet certified by NREL.

Despite these promising results, the gap between solar cell and module efficiencies is still wide (3-5%) [2]. This so-called “solar gap” constitutes a major challenge for commercial viability of photovoltaics. One explanation, proposed by M. Alam and his group at the University of Purdue, says that the “solar gap” is due to the monolithic series connection of thin films that causes shunt leakage current. Analysis of the shunt leakage current show that an I-V curve can be modeled by the diode equation and the shunt current, which has a non-linear relation with the voltage, as shown in Fig. 1. It was shown by Alam et al, that as a consequence of the series connection of cells, large shunts have a twofold impact on module performance. First, they modify the operating point of their neighboring good sub-cells, thereby lowering their output power. Second, a large fraction of this (already reduced) power, generated by the neighbours, is consumed by the shunted sub-cell. Interestingly this phenomenon is not unique to CdTe photovoltaics but more of a universal phenomenon and studies on CdTe, CIGS, OPV and amorphous silicon thin films show the same behaviour. At PVSC they have described a post-deposition scribing technique for electrically isolating these distributed shunts in monolithic thin film PV modules. The localized scribes minimize the losses due to defective shunts by restricting lateral current drain from its (otherwise defect-free) neighbors.

Figure 1 of Ahmed's blog

Fig. 1 Measured IDark (squares) can be represented by a parallel combination of diode with series resistance I (green), and a parasitic shunt component (red), with a symmetric (around V = 0) non-Ohmic voltage dependence. Reproduced from [3] with permission of The Royal Society of Chemistry.


[1] W. N. Shafarman, “What’s next for Cu(InGa)Se2 Thin Film PV: Opportunities and Challenges”, 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2013

[2] S. Dongaonkar, M. A. Alam, “Reducing the Cell to Module Efficiency Gap in Thin Film PV using In-line Post-Process Scribing Isolation”, 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2013

[3] S. Dongaonkar, S. Loser, E. J. Sheets, K. Zaunbrecher, R. Agrawal, T. J. Marks, and M. A. Alam, “Universal statistics of parasitic shunt formation in solar cells, and its implications for cell to module efficiency gap,” Energy & Environmental Science, vol. 6, pp. 782–787, 2013

Ahmed Gabr's picture

-Ahmed Gabr

Ph.D Candidate, Year 3

SUNLAB, University of Ottawa

Several presentations at the European Photovoltaic Conference 2012 in Frankfurt, Germany, including those of Prof. Harry Atwater, illustrate recent breakthroughs in the area of high-efficiency thin film solar cells. One of the most interesting developments is that researchers are beginning to consider materials which have not been used conventionally as a thin film.

Absorber materials of a high efficiency solar cell typically comprise a significant fraction (~50%) of the total cell cost. One simple way to reduce the cell cost is to use less material. Processing solar cells with thin layers can present handling challenges for some of the materials – breakage being one of the primary issues. Nevertheless, thin materials that are flexible can enable versatility in production, such as roll-to-roll processing, and hence can significantly reduce the processing cost.

Alta Device[1] fabricates solar cells using a few micron thick gallium arsenide absorber layer. However, gallium arsenide is extremely expensive to use in large area solar cells, and thin films of this material tend to be fragile and difficult to fabricate. This is where Alta enters with its innovation – being able to make cheap solar modules that are practical for most applications using this material. Inventions by two leading academic researchers in photonic materials, Eli Yablonovitch and Harry Atwater, have been integrated to achieve this goal. Eli Yablonovitch developed and patented a technique for creating ultrathin films of gallium arsenide in the 1980s while working at Bell Communications Research. On the other hand, Harry Atwater worked on microstructures and nanostructures to improve the material’s ability to trap light and convert it into electricity. Amalgamation of these two ideas have resulted in efficiency increases at a more reasonable cost while using this material.

Alta’s cells have converted 28.3 percent of sunlight into electricity, which is the highest single junction one sun conversion efficiency record – in contrast, the highest efficiency for a silicon solar cell is 25 percent and commonly used thin-film solar materials don’t exceed 20 percent. Yablonovitch suggests that Alta in due course has the potential of breaking the 30 percent efficiency mark and nearing the theoretical limit of 33.4 percent for cells of this type.


 Flexible power: Alta’s solar cells can be made into bendable sheets. In this sample, a series of solar cells are encapsulated in a roofing material. Credit: Gabriela Hasbun

Unlike gallium arsenide, silicon is a relatively inexpensive material. Interestingly silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust ( ~28% by mass) after oxygen[2] , is also the most commonly used material in the PV industry (85%, multi-crystalline and mono-crystalline silicon combined) – a function of its economics and established processing industry. Nonetheless, efforts are on-going to further reduce cell price of silicon. Recently companies such as Silicon Genesis, Twin Creeks and AstroWatt have developed processes to make ultra-thin silicon wafers. Silicon Genesis and Twin Creeks uses Proton Induced Exfoliation (PIE)[3] method to isolate ultra-thin (20 micron thin) silicon wafers. In PIE, high-energy protons (or hydrogen ions) are embedded into “donor” wafers, such as thick wafers of silicon, germanium or other single-crystal materials. The ions form a uniform layer beneath the surface of the donor, as shown in the figure below. The depth of the formed layer depends on the energy of the incoming ions. The physical attributes of hydrogen permit the ions to penetrate the surface of the donor wafer without changing its inherent properties and characteristics.


When heated, the ions then lift or exfoliate a uniform ultra-thin layer, called a lamina, from the donor wafer. The lamina becomes a production wafer and can be processed into thin solar cells or semiconductor devices. To use an analogy, the ions act like a scalpel and carve away thin, identical and functional wafers from the donor. A single donor wafer can be reused repeatedly to create multiple laminae.  These ultra-thin wafers contain only a fraction of the material currently used in a standard wafer for solar cells, LEDs or other devices. Twin Creeks reported a maximum cell efficiency of 11% using their 20 micon thin wafers.

Astrowatt[4] on the other hand uses Semiconductor on Metal (SOM®) kerf-less exfoliation process. A metal layer is deposited on a silicon wafer and then the wafer is subjected to a series of thermal cycles, resulting in residual stresses that exfoliate a thin layer of silicon. Astrowatt recently reported a 15% efficient solar cell using their SOM method.

It is worth noting that there are other solar cell devices that use inherently thin film structures. Examples include copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and amorphous silicon (a-Si) solar cells, where maximum cell efficiencies of 19.6% and 10.1% have been reported for CIGS and a-Si solar cells, respectively [5].

Chow3Zahidur R Chowdhury

Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto.

PhD Candidate (5th Year)



[2] Nave, R. Abundances of the Elements in the Earth’s Crust, Georgia State University

[3] Twin Creeks (

[4] Jawarani et al., ‘Integration and Reliability of Thin Silicon Solar Cells and Modules Fabricated using SOM® Technology’, EU PVSEC 2012, Frankfurt, Germany.

[5] Solar cell efficiency tables (version 40)

[6] Alta Devices (

[7] AstroWatt (