A Bright Future: The Current State of Solar Technology Development

By Steve Brachmann
October 21, 2014

Alternative forms of energy for the generation of electricity is a topic we focus on from time to time here at IPWatchdog. Recently, a team of scientists working at Ohio State University created the world’s solar battery, which includes a solar cell and a battery within a singly hybrid device. These batteries, which could achieve a length of charge comparable to other rechargeable batteries, achieves a cost reduction in utilizing solar energy of about 25 percent. It also reduces the need for any process of transmitting electricity from a solar cell to a battery, in which up to 20 percent of electrons are successfully transmitted to the battery.

The development of a solar battery, a major advancement in the field of solar energy utilization, is only one of the indicators of increased solar development in the past few months. Some municipalities in the United States are electing to develop community solar farms which can produce amounts of electricity that reach into the hundreds of thousands of kilowatts annually. Major solar panel manufacturers, such as SolarCity, are developing loan programs to help solar customers gain ownership of the solar panels outright over the course of years. Door to door sales of solar are also incredibly high, and Vivint Inc., a Utah-based solar developer, has sold units to 22,000 customers, mainly on the strength of house calls.

Today, we were inspired by the OSU developments to take a look at the current status of solar technology development throughout the world. What we found was that a number of companies, including major players like IBM and Samsung, are interested in protecting solar energy-related innovations. The manufacture of high-efficient solar cell technologies is still a major focus as corporations and inventors try to make solar energy more cost-effective. Interestingly, we’ve noticed growing trends in the creation of transparent and flexible solar cells. We also shared some patents that protect some unique applications of solar collection and energy use, including their use in both in-vehicle and LED lamp systems.

[Bio-Pharma]

 

Manufacturing Highly Efficient Solar Cells

The development of solar cells with even higher energy generation efficiencies are desired as solar innovators continue to deal with the high cost of the technology relative to other forms of energy generation. In some parts of the world, including Spain, Turkey and Portugal, electricity generated from both solar and wind sources will be cost-competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity generation within a decade. The falling cost of electricity generation through solar technologies is a great indicator of the tremendous innovation made in the field in recent years, and even higher-efficiency solar cells should help drive cost-effectiveness even further.

From U.S. Patent No. 8852992, titled “Method of Manufacturing Solar Cell.”

Several trends emerged when looking at recent patents issued during the past few weeks, one of which was the innovative development of copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells, which can be used in flexible solar cells. CIGS solar cells are thin-film solar cells, comprised of a mixture of the CIGS elements deposited onto a backing, which have excellent solar absorption rates. U.S. Patent No. 8852992, which is titled Method of Manufacturing Solar Cell, discusses improvements to CIGS solar cells which result in an increased light efficiency. This patent was jointly issued to Samsung SDI Co. and Samsung Display Co., Korean subsidiaries of the Samsung conglomerate we feature regularly in our Companies We Follow series. The patent protects a method of manufacturing a CIGS solar cell with an adjusted composition ratio of the elements in the light absorption layer of the cell. Improved configurations for CIGS solar cells are also the focus of U.S. Patent No. 8852991, issued under the title Methods of Manufacturing Solar Cell. Assigned to the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute of Daejeon, Korea, the patent protects a method of manufacturing CIGS solar cells in such a way that reduces substrate deformation caused by high temperature processes. It also prevents against quality deterioration in CIGS cells caused by impurity diffusion.

There is plenty of recent development in solar cell manufacturing outside of thin-film CIGS cells, however. U.S. Patent No. 8835753, entitled Solar Cell and Method of Fabricating the Same, discusses a method of manufacturing solar cells involving doped semiconductors, where impurities have actually been added to modulate electrical properties of a semiconductor. The patent, assigned to AU Optronics Corp. of Taiwan’s Hsinchu Science and Industrial park, protects a solar cell with a semiconductor base with enhanced photo-electric conversion efficiency.

 

Solar Cells with Flexible Characteristics

The creation of solar cell technologies which exhibit flexible characteristics has some very interesting implications for the future implementation of solar cells. Like the thin-film CIGS solar cells discussed above, thin-film cell technologies are capable of creating cells capable of collecting solar energy from a number of items with uneven surfaces, and some have even speculated the use of solar cells on backpacks, clothing and even curtains. Although the span of service life for these technologies is relatively low, especially with flexible organic photovoltaics, a multitude of small-scale solar energy converters would enable people to collect solar energy for electricity generation in a number of new and passive ways.

There were a couple of patents recently issued and related to flexible solar cells that we wanted to share with our readers today. Gallium, one of the CIGS elements, is also utilized in the fabrication method protected by U.S. Patent No. 8853529, which is titled Flexible III-V Solar Cell Structure. This patent was also issued to one of our Companies We Follow regulars: International Business Machines Corporation of Armonk, NY. The IBM patent protects a structure with a germanium substrate on which is formed a buffer region, which includes an electrically conductive layer that has been doped with gallium arsenide. The doped conductive layer has the advantage of reducing the instance of antiphase boundaries defects that can form while growing certain elements, including germanium, directly onto a substrate. U.S. Patent No. 8841161, issued under the title Method for Forming Flexible Solar Cells, discusses a new configuration for flexible solar cells that, in some embodiments, would allow the photovoltaic cell to achieve a radius of curvature which is less than one centimeter. The patent, assigned to GTAT Corporation of Merrimack, NH, protects a method of forming a photovoltaic cell in which a semiconductor wafer is etched through a process that reduces the thickness of the semiconductor wafer to less than 40 micrometers.

 

Aesthetically Pleasing Transparent Solar Cells

From U.S. Patent No. 8835754, entitled “Method of Manufacturing See-Through Thin Film Solar Cells.”

Ask someone to describe what they think of as a solar panel and they’ll probably describe something thick and bulky with many rows of electronic components making up the cells of the panel. As we’ve seen pretty regularly in today’s analysis of recent solar energy technologies, ultra-thin panel technologies are being developed for an incredibly wide array of uses in our world. The development of transparent solar cells, which a person can see through without having their view blocked by a lot of electronics and wiring, is another trend we’ve spotted today. A major advancement in this field was recently announced as a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michigan State University announced their successful creation of transparent luminescent solar concentrators. Although these solar energy collectors do not achieve the same solar energy conversion rates of conventional solar cells, greater exploration of this technology could lead to electricity generation from solar energy collected through the windows of a building.

We did catch a couple of patents in our recent foray into solar technologies which discuss improvements to what has already been developed in this field. One manufacturing method designed to achieve solar cells which are both transparent and flexible is protected by U.S. Patent No. 8835754, entitled Method of Manufacturing See-Through Thin Film Solar Cells. Assigned to solo inventor Shui-yang Lien of Yunlin County, Taiwan, the patent protects a method of manufacturing a solar cell in which a photoelectric conversion film is formed on a first substrate, placing a patterned photo mask above the film and ablating the conversion film to create a hollow-out zone including transparent sections. A second substrate is prepared for bonding with the first substrate through the use of packaging adhesive film. This see-through solar cell technology is designed to add value to transparent solar cells by enabling the display of color or grey scale patterns, which can help add to the value of the solar technology. U.S. Patent No. 8853521, which is titled Truncated Pyramid Structures for See-Through Solar Cells, discloses an innovation for constructing transparent solar cells that have much better structural and mechanical properties. The patent, assigned to Solexel, Inc. of Milpitas, CA, protects a method of making a see-through three-dimensional monocrystalline silicon thin film solar cell substrate. The resulting solar cell has improved mechanical strength, is better capable of trapping light and offers lower costs for cell processing.

 

Next Generation Applications of Solar Energy Use 

From U.S. Patent No. 8845126, issued as “Low Profile Solar LED Lamp.”

The major news announcement from OSU, featured near the top of this article, and the advances in transparent and flexible solar cells indicates that we are on the cusp of a new day in solar energy. When solar energy can be collected, stored and transported more easily, the applications for solar collection energies in our world could explode. Consumer markets could see a diverse selection of solar-powered products in the coming years, including applications as diverse as keyboards, lights and even aircraft. Instead of generating electricity from a solar farm and transporting that electricity over a long distance, solar energy could be collected and utilized directly at the source.

We were greatly intrigued to find even just a few solar energy technologies to power various products through the collection of sunlight. Solar energy cannot yet drive a vehicle completely, but it might help reduce the usage of other energies through the technology protected within U.S. Patent No. 8853993, entitled Control System and Control Method of an In-Vehicle Solar Energy Charger. Assigned to BYD Company Limited of Shenzen, China, the patent protects a control system for an in-vehicle solar energy charger which includes at least one solar cell panel and a controller that can transmit power collected by the solar cell to a starting battery or a power battery. The technology is designed to improve upon controllers in conventional solar energy chargers which have reduced flexibility and cannot utilize solar energy in response to the changing energy needs of electrical systems within a vehicle. Another invention involving solar-powered products is the focal point of U.S. Patent No. 8845126, issued under the title Low Profile Solar LED Lamp. This invention is assigned to Lake Lite, Inc. of Laotto, IN. The patent protects a lamp assembly that includes a photovoltaic array and electronic circuit mounted onto a first chamber of the lamp’s housing. The description of this patent states that the technology was invented to address the need for lighting in remote locations which do not need to be connected to electrical wiring and also illuminate a walkway for reducing hazards.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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