Thin Film Solar Panels: The Future of Solar?

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With an ambitious global target to hit net zero emissions by 2050, renewable energy remains an important factor in building a better and bright future for our planet. 

Solar power is arguably in a golden age, already a renewable market leader, with several exciting innovations in the pipeline which could drastically change the potential of renewable power. 

In this article, we explore the concept of thin film solar panels, diving into how they work, their benefits and exactly how they are and could be applied for energy production. 

Understanding Thin Film Solar Panels

Thin film solar panels are a type of photovoltaic (PV) technology that utilises a thin semiconductor layer to convert sunlight into electricity. 

These are not typically the type of solar panels you find on the roof of commercial and residential buildings. These traditional mono and polycrystalline panels widely use single-material cells (silicon) and a range of heavier materials such as glass and metal to create a protective structure.

Thin film solar panels use various materials including amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, or copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS). Their unique structure allows for greater flexibility, better angle performance, affordability and much lighter-weight designs, making them suitable for a wider range of applications. 

The manufacturing process of thin film solar panels is cheaper than those that use crystalline. Here are the basic steps involved in making thin film panels: 

Step One: A substrate material is prepared as the base for the thin film. This may be made of glass, metal foil or flexible plastic sheeting. The substrate is cleaned and coated with a conductive coating (usually Indium Tin Oxide (ITO)).

Step Two: Thin films of semiconductor material are deposited onto the substrate material. These are typically made of materials such as amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS). 

Step Three: The deposited thin film is etched to create the desired structure. This step involves photolithography techniques.

Step Four: The thin film is doped to introduce impurities that create its electrical properties, helping establish a positive and negative junction within the solar cell. 

Step Five: Metallic contacts are applied to the thin film to facilitate the collection of electrical current. 

Step Six: The thin film is encapsulated in a transparent encapsulant material to protect it. 

Advantages and Limitations of Thin Film Solar Panels

When comparing the various types of solar panels, there are several advantages and limitations to using thin film solar panels. 

As previously mentioned, the unique structure of thin film panels makes them considerably lighter, cheaper and more flexible than traditional silicon panels. They can also perform better in lower-light conditions, making them ideal for use in areas where weight and position are crucial factors. 

But they do have their limitations. For example, thin films solar panels have lower energy conversion efficiency when compared to crystalline silicon panels. This is why thin cell panels typically aren’t used in areas such as rooftops where crystalline silicon panels offer better results. 

Ongoing research into thin-cell solar panels promises to increase efficiency. For example, Solar Frontier, a company that set a record for thin film solar efficiency (23.35%) in 2017 and are seeking ways to move this closer to 30% in the near future. 

Applications of Thin Film Solar Panels

Thin film solar panels have a wide range of applications. 

For example, their flexibility makes them ideal for Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV). One exciting example of this is clothing manufacturer Patagonia’s application of clear thin film solar panels in the windows of their new headquarters. 

They can also be seamlessly integrated into portable devices such as portable radios, batteries, fridges and shelters. Their lightweight construction also makes them well-suited for use in vehicles such as cars, camper vans and boats.

Environmental Impact and Future Outlook

It is the widespread flexibility of thin-cell solar panels that makes them such an exciting prospect in terms of lowering our overall environmental impact. Unlike typical silicon PV panels, thin film panels can be applied in a much wider array of environments, offering more opportunities to turn the sun’s energy into electricity and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. 

The manufacturing process for thin-film solar panels is also considered more environmentally friendly due to less wastage and a lower energy requirement. 

Similarly to silicon PV panes, thin film panels can largely be recycled. During this recycling process, semiconductor materials such as cadmium and tellurium are recovered from the panels, alongside glass and copper. These materials can then be reused to create further thin cell panels or other products. 

As research into improving the efficiency of thin film panels continues we will start to see a widespread acceptance and application of this type of solar panel. This is especially crucial as we move closer towards key dates in reducing global carbon emissions. 

Integrating thin film panels into urban planning and smart grids will be an essential step in turning solar into a realistic replacement for fossil fuels. 

Thin Film Solar: Summary 

It is clear that thin film solar is an important technology that has huge potential to improve the renewable energy market. The flexibility it brings to the table makes it incredibly applicable to a wide range of situations in which typical silicon PV panels simply will not work. 

Ultimately, this applicability will help us generate more electricity from the sun’s energy, lowering our dependence on fossil fuels. It can also open new potential in terms of solar-powered devices, allowing for electrically driven items to be used in areas which are detached from the grid.

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First published in 2003, Eco Voice is your go-to publication for sustainability news in Australia. Eco Voice prides itself as an independent news platform with a clear focus on sustainability, with articles coming from a diverse range of contributors – all levels of government, corporations, not-for-profits, community groups, small to medium sized businesses, universities, research organisations, together with input from international sources. Eco Voice values community, conservation and commerce. Eco Voice is a media partner of the prestigious Australian Banksia Sustainability Awards – The Peak Sustainability Awards.