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IBM partners to produce thin-film solar cells

Japanese solar manufacturer Solar Frontier signs up with IBM to further develop thin-film solar cells made from abundant materials.

Materials technology developed at IBM's research labs is inching closer to commercial solar panels.

Japanese manufacturer Solar Frontier said yesterday it has signed a deal to develop thin-film solar cells originally designed by IBM.

IBM researchers improved the efficiency of thin-film solar cells made from relatively abundant materials--copper, tin, zinc, selenium, and sulfur.
IBM researchers improved the efficiency of thin-film solar cells made from relatively abundant materials--copper, tin, zinc, and sulfur. IBM

IBM researchers last year showed they were able to improve the efficiency of solar cells made from a combination of copper, zinc, tin, sulfur and selenium (CZTS), hitting an efficiency mark of 9.6 percent in the lab. Although they are generally less efficient than silicon, thin-film solar cells promise to be cheaper because less material is needed.

Solar cells made from other thin-film materials have shown better efficiency in labs. But making cells from CZTS would have an advantage over other materials in that they are made from relatively abundant elements.

There is growing discussion about the availability of different materials for solar cells and other green-technology products. A number of companies are making cells with a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium (CIGS), but some people have raised concern over the supply and cost of indium, for example.

Solar Frontier already manufactures thin-film cells from copper, indium, selenium, gallium, and sulfur. With this partnership, Solar Frontier will seek to expand on the research already done by IBM on CZTS.

"We are interested in exploring CZTS for its evolutionary compatibility with our CIS thin film technology. The goals of the project correspond with Solar Frontier's mission to combine both economical and ecological solar energy solutions," Satoru Kuriyagawa, Solar Frontier's chief technology officer, said in a statement.

With a long history in semiconductor research, IBM has worked on a few solar-related projects, including those on thin-film materials and solar concentrators. So far, its approach has to been to seek licensing deals rather than build its own solar products.