Nanostructure Films Economically Deposited for Photovoltaic Manufacturing

Is lowering the production costs of thin-film solar cells while not improving efficiency really a commercial game changer?

2 min read
Nanostructure Films Economically Deposited for Photovoltaic Manufacturing

Researchers at Oregon State University and Yeungnam University in Korea have reported in the latest edition of Current Applied Physics that they have successfully used continuous flow microreactors to make thin film absorbers for solar cells.

The system actually employs the century-old method of chemical bath deposition, but manages to do it with a high level of control over the thickness of the deposited layer. It seems the method will be far more economical than other manufacturing methods used for depositing nanostructure films on substrate, such as sputtering, evaporation, and electrodeposition, which can be time consuming, or require expensive vacuum systems or exotic chemicals that raise production costs.

“We’ve now demonstrated that this system can produce thin-film solar absorbers on a glass substrate in a short time, and that’s quite significant,” Chih-hung Chang, an associate professor in the OSU School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering is quoted as saying in the OSU press release. “That’s the first time this has been done with this new technique.”

According to Chang in the same press release, further work is still needed on process control, testing of the finished solar cell, improving its efficiency to rival that of vacuum-based technology, and scaling up the process to a commercial application.

While potentially lowering production costs is always a good thing, it seems odd to focus on reducing manufacturing costs for a product that already is significantly cheaper to produce than its silicon rival but still lacks in silicon’s efficiency in turning sunlight into electricity.

I have lamented before on this unsatisfactory choice between efficiency or lower production costs in photovoltaics. Perhaps as one of the comments on my previous post suggested, we should aim at the “McDonald’s Model” just: “Make 'em cheap, make 'em fast, make 'em consistent, and have 'em ready when I'm hungry.”

But key to that working will be achieving competitive per kilowatt hour (kWh) that gets closer to the cost of generating electricity from wind ($0.05 per kWh) than where solar cells are at the moment (around $0.30 per kWh). I am not sure that a price target of $0.25 per kWh is really low enough to pave the world with solar cells, or that this new manufacturing process will help photovoltaics get to that number or lower. 

Unfortunately, millions of dollars have been invested in seeing if thin-film solar can do that with no real rousing successes to date.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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