IBM pushes solar PV technology

As fuels prices and energy costs surge around the world, the spotlight is fixed on the future of alternative energy sources, particularly solar photovoltaic technology.

As fuels prices and energy costs surge around the world, the spotlight is fixed on the future of alternative energy sources, particularly solar photovoltaic technology. As the twin realities of climate change and peak oil become ever more apparent, big companies are quietly shifting focus and making preparations for weathering the coming storm.

As the solar photovoltaic field grows around the world, more companies are becoming involved and investing in renewable energy.

Evidence of the movement away from more traditional investments is technology giant IBM's joining of forces with semiconductor process company Tokyo Ohka Kogyo (TOK), to find ways of making solar power technology more efficient and more affordable.

The partnership will concentrate on production of high-power thin-film solar cells. IBM will lend its manufacturing expertise to the process while TOK uses its LCD panel coating experience from the semiconductor industry. They hope to produce copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) cells that can turn more than 15% of sunlight into power - a significant improvement on the 6%-12% efficiency that current solar CIGS makers have achieved.

The two companies claim they can create techniques will double the effectiveness of solar modules.

However they have no plans to enter the solar module manufacturing industry, but
hope to sell licenses to technological breakthroughs to other solar cell developers.

IBM Research's Supratik Guha refused to put a specific figure on the sales of new thin-film solar technology, he described the market potential as huge.

"We've already been in discussions with photovoltaic manufacturers," Mr Guha said.

"There are problems to be resolved, but this is the time we're starting to talk to them."

CIGS solar cells are much thinner than the majority of those on the market today, which use silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. Silicon solar cells make up 90% of the solar photovoltaic market worldwide and produce more electricity than CIGS cells.

Mr Guha said that the development of CIGS solar technology provided more opportunities for growth.

"Traditional silicon is a very mature field already, the scope for dramatic improvement is probably not there," he said. "We felt that this is where we could make a bigger impact."

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