Robot Builds & Tests Thin-Film Solar: Huge Gains in Efficiency & Speed

NREL robot produces and tests thin film solar cells photo

Image credit: NREL

There's long been speculation that thin-film solar could compete with fossil fuels in the near future. So when the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory produced record-breaking thin-film solar cells that achieved 19.9% efficiency in laboratory testing, people were rightly excited. But how do you take idealized lab results, and turn them into replicable and affordable products in the real world? NREL are working on that too. Their latest creation—a robot that produces thin-film solar cells, analyzes their performance, tests them for flaws, all the while preparing the next cell for production—should be a major leap forward in that regard. Big Green Boulder alerted us to the existence of this revolutionary solar-manufacturing robot. The NREL website explains that there are actually 6 of these robots operating in the Process Development and Integration Laboratory (PDiL), each one working with different semi-conductors.

The machine can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in about 35 minutes, and it then analyzes the plate for glitches or flaws, measures how much light it absorbs, all the while it is preparing the next half-dozen plates in a completely vacuum sealed environment. According to Ingrid Repins, an NREL scientist, it is a massive leap forward for them in terms of speed:"It used to require us to go to, let's see, one ... two ... three ... four ... five labs to do the same thing,"

Ultimately this should lead to improvements in efficiency, consistency and materials costs for thin-film manufacture. And that's a big deal - for every incremental increase in efficiency, each solar array requires less installation costs, less materials costs, and even less space.

Now if you could just make these robots mobile, and have them crawl over rooftops printing their panels as they go, we'd be set. OK, I've been watching too much sci-fi...

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