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Cost-Effective Silicon Wafers for Solar Cells

1366 Technologies

Direct Wafer: Enabling Terawatt Photovoltaics

Graphic of 1366's technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$3,999,828
Location: 
Bedford, MA
Project Term: 
03/01/2010 to 06/30/2012
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Crystalline silicon wafers are the single largest cost item associated with making solar panels, which capture the sun's energy to make electricity. The high cost of silicon wafers has limited the widespread use of photovoltaic solar cells. Finding ways to lower the cost of silicon wafers would increase the demand for solar energy and help grow the domestic solar energy industry.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

1366 Technologies is developing a process to reduce the cost of solar electricity by up to 50% by 2020--from $0.15 per kilowatt hour to less than $0.07. 1366's process avoids the costly step of slicing a large block of silicon crystal into wafers, which turns half the silicon to dust. Instead, the company is producing thin wafers directly from molten silicon at industry-standard sizes, and with efficiencies that compare favorably with today's state-of-the-art technologies. 1366's wafers could directly replace wafers currently on the market, so there would be no interruptions to the delivery of these products to market. As a result of 1366's technology, the cost of silicon wafers could be reduced by 80%.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, 1366 would significantly reduce the cost of solar power, making it cost competitive with coal power in some parts of the U.S. within 10 years.

Security: 

Most solar panels are made outside of the U.S. 1366's project would encourage domestic production, granting the U.S. greater control over its energy security.

Environment: 

Positioning solar energy production as a renewable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective alternative to fossil fuel-based energy production would reduce millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Economy: 

1366's project could help the U.S. capture a majority of the annual $20 billion silicon wafer market and motivate solar manufacturers to locate in the U.S.

Innovation Update: 

(As of August 2016)
1366 Technologies developed a process to reduce the cost of production of silicon wafers and strengthen the performance of the wafers. The demonstrated benefits of the team’s Direct Wafer™ process led to over $70 million of follow-on funding from strategic and financial investors, including GE and Hanwha Q CELLS Co, LTD., the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer. Additionally, manufacturing capacity of the wafers has greatly increased as a result of Round B funding acquired during 1366’s ARPA-E award period. 1366 has announced a 260 MW commercial Direct Wafer™ factory in New York State, scheduled to be online in 2017. The completed plant will provide Hanwha with 700 ME of wafers over a 5 year period. Financing will come, in part, from a $150 million Department of Energy loan guarantee that was awarded in 2011. In May 2016, an additional $10 million commitment was made by Hanwha Investment Corporation to support plant construction. The realization of the Direct Wafer™ process enables U.S. manufacturing of solar panels with greatly increased production capacity.

To reduce the cost of silicon wafer production, 1366 Technologies developed a process that eliminates casting and sawing, the most expensive and wasteful process in wafer manufacturing. To accomplish this, the company developed the molten silicon Direct Wafer™ process. This process of attaching molten silicon to a reusable substrate, solidifying a thin sheet, and cleanly releasing a wafer, eliminates the need for the sawing process, allows for controllable substrate formation, and increases the usable amount of silicon. The team designed and built a customized furnace, enabling production and testing of industry standard 156 mm wafers. The team also optimized the reusable substrate for appropriate thermal conductivity and modified the thermal conditions of the furnace to increase wafer grain size from 0.8 mm to >1 mm. 1366 also removed impurities and structural defects, which weaken the wafer, by prepurifying molten silicon and condensing the wafers directly out of the melt.

For a detailed assessment of the 1366 team's project and impact, please click here.

Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Mark Johnson
Project Contact: 
1366 Information
Partners
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Release Date: 
10/26/2009