The research team is focusing on applying ST's expertise in nanotechnology to the development of new solar cell technologies that will eventually be able to compete commercially with conventional electricity generation methods such as burning fossil fuels or nuclear reactors.
Catania, Italy, September 30, 2003 - STMicroelectronics (NYSE: STM), one of the world's leading manufacturers of semiconductor devices, today released details of an advanced research program that it hopes will substantially reduce the cost of generating electricity from solar power. The research team, based in Catania and Naples, Italy, is focusing on applying ST's expertise in nanotechnology to the development of new solar cell technologies that will eventually be able to compete commercially with conventional electricity generation methods such as burning fossil fuels or nuclear reactors.
Photovoltaic systems (solar cells) convert energy from sunlight into electrical power and are potentially one of the most important renewable energy sources. However, existing solar cell technologies are mainly based on semiconductor materials such as silicon and therefore involve high material* costs. Consequently, although the "fuel" for a solar-powered generator is free sunlight, the overall cost of solar-generated electricity (amortized over the lifetime of the solar cell, typically 20 years) is around ten times higher than the cost of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.
Semiconductor-based solar cells have the highest efficiency (defined as the electrical energy produced for a given input of solar energy) but there is little that can be done to either increase the efficiency or reduce the manufacturing cost. ST is therefore pursuing alternative approaches in which the aim is to produce solar cells that may have lower efficiencies (e.g. 10% instead of 15-20%) but are much cheaper to manufacture.
"Although there is much support around the world for the principle of generating electricity from solar power, existing solar cell technologies are too expensive to be used on an industrial scale. The ability to produce low cost, high efficiency solar cells would dramatically change the picture and revolutionize the field of solar energy generation, allowing it to compete more effectively with fossil fuel sources," says Dr. Salvo Coffa, who heads the ST research group that is developing the new solar cell technology.
The ST team is following two approaches. One of these, invented in 1990 by Professor Michael Graetzel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, uses a similar principle to photosynthesis. In a conventional solar cell, a single material such as silicon performs all three of the essential functions, which are absorbing sunlight (converting photons into electrons and holes), withstanding the electric field needed to separate electrons and holes, and conducting the free carriers (electrons and holes) to the collecting contacts of the cell. To perform these three tasks simultaneously with high efficiency, the semiconductor material must be of very high purity, which is the main reason why silicon-based solar cells are too costly to compete with conventional means of producing electric power.
In contrast, the Graetzel cell, known as the Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell (DSSC), mimics the mechanism that plants use to convert sunlight into energy, where each function is performed by different substances. The DSSC cell uses an organic dye (photosensitizer) to absorb the light and create electron-hole pairs, a nanoporous (high surface area) metal oxide layer to transport the electrons, and a hole-transporting material, which is typically a liquid electrolyte.
"One of the most exciting avenues we are exploring is the replacement of the liquid electrolytes that are mostly used today for the hole-transport function by conductive polymers. This could lead to further reductions in cost per Watt, which is the key to making solar energy commercially viable," says Coffa.
The ST team is also developing low cost solar cells using a full organic approach, in which a mixture of electron-acceptor and electron-donor organic materials is sandwiched between two electrodes. The nanostructure of this blend is crucial for the cell performance because the electron-donor and electron-acceptor materials have to be in an intimate contact at distances below 10 nm. ST plans to use Fullerene (C60) as the electron-acceptor material and an organic copper compound as the electron-donor.
"These R&D activities, which exploit the expertise we have in nanotechnology, complement and augment the commitment that ST has made to be a CO2-neutral company by 2010," says Coffa. "In addition to ensuring that our own industrial activities have minimal impact on the environment, we are developing many new technologies that we hope will bring substantial ecological benefits."
STMicroelectronics is a global leader in developing and delivering semiconductor solutions across the spectrum of microelectronics applications. An unrivalled combination of silicon and system expertise, manufacturing strength, Intellectual Property (IP) portfolio and strategic partners positions the Company at the forefront of System-on-Chip (SoC) technology and its products play a key role in enabling today's convergence markets. The Company's shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, on Euronext Paris and on the Milan Stock Exchange. In 2002, the Company's net revenues were $6.32 billion and net earnings were $429.4 million. Further information on ST can be found at http://www.st.com.