Thin film solar panels, also known as thin-film photovoltaic cells are one of the newest and best ways to lower the cost of installing a solar energy system in your home. In fact, in 2008 Time Magazine considered thin film solar cells to be among the years most important inventions!
What's the difference between a thin film solar cell and the thicker, old style solar panels?
Both types of solar panels rely on the photovoltaic process that happens when the light of the sun passes through a material that acts as a semiconductor which transforms the sunlight into an electric current. The electricity produced can used, stored, or even sold back to your utility company!
The thicker, earlier generation solar panels used crystalline silicon as the semiconductor material that transformed sunlight into electricity. Silicon is quite expensive, and this type of solar panel was difficult to manufacture because each cell had to be individually produced.
Now new thin film solar panels are being developed that can be mass produced using automated systems. Thin film solar cells can be created using a roll-to-roll manufacturing process which is very similar to how paper is made. This drastically reduces the production costs, as they are three times less labor intensive to manufacture.
These new thin-film photovoltaic cells can vary in thickness quite a bit, as there are a number of different possible photovoltaic materials that can be used such as selenium, copper, gallium, indium, cadmium, or even non-crystallized silicon.
There are also different choices available for the backing material such as metal, plastic or glass which has been coated with a material known as transparent conducting oxide.
The other benefit of the new thin film solar panels is that they are lighter, smaller and more flexible. Some are as thin as aluminum foil! Many can be built into a wall or rooftop, or even the sides of a home. You wouldn't even know that some of these devices are actually solar panels!
One of the challenges involved with using thin film solar technologies is that they tend to be less efficient, depending on what they are made of. Amorphous silicon for example is one of those materials, although researchers have devised some new ways to increase their efficiency.
There is some controvery within the solar manufacturing community about this, as some say that the older ways of measuring solar panel efficiency do not apply to thin film panels which can work well even in less direct sunlight, unlike traditional solar panels.
Thin film materials vary quite a bit, but in general the non silicone materials are harder to find and therefore more difficult to manufacture in large amounts for mass production.
There is some concern that current thin film panels are made from materials that are not friendly to the environment. Even though these panels are made to last for several decades or more, eventually they will need to be disposed of and so it is hoped that new materials can be found that will work well and also pose no danger to the envrionment.
These new solar panels are already being used as roof shingles, and are even being used to power TV's, laptop computers, and even cell phones and MP3 players.
Just recently researchers at Georgia Tech have discovered a new way to transform optical fibers into long, thin solar cells. These are assembled along the outside of an optical cable using dye-sensitized solar cell materials, and were found to be up to six times more efficient than flat solar cells made with the same materials.
The new thin film solar cells are helping to create more affordable solar power so that one day, everyone that wants solar power for the home can have it!
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