Leap Photovoltaic says it can cut the cost of solar cells in half

Solar energy is rising shortly, however it nonetheless makes up solely round 3% of the world’s electrical energy manufacturing—and to deal with local weather change, that quantity could must develop to 60% or extra. The provision chain is one of the components limiting development: Bottlenecks in the manufacturing of key elements are slowing down manufacturing. However in a lab in Oakland, California, a startup is engaged on a redesigned solar cell that might cut the cost of manufacturing in half—and make it simpler to make solar cells in the U.S. and different components of the world.

“We thought, let’s see if there’s one other method to reimagine the manner we manufacture,” says David Berney Needleman, CEO of the startup, known as Leap Photovoltaic. The corporate’s design eliminates silicon wafers, a element used in nearly all solar cells, that are costly to provide, power intensive, and create waste. As an alternative of utilizing wafers, the course of goes straight from silicon to completed solar cells, which can then be made into solar panels.

Proper now, as a result of it’s additionally very costly to construct a manufacturing facility to make silicon wafers, solely a handful of producers exist. A couple of solar panel producers make their very own wafers in-house. Others need to import wafers from a pair of main corporations. “You’ve gotten this very restricted provide chain that you simply can pull from, and that’s difficult, as a result of it’s simply vulnerable to disruption,” Needleman says. “It’s vulnerable to not realizing in case you’re going to have the ability to get materials and elements that you simply want, whenever you’re going to get it, and the way a lot it’s going to cost—all the issues that you consider being core to constructing a enterprise are very shadowy in the solar trade proper now.”

Over the previous yr alone, he says, the value of silicon jumped from $5 to $10 per kilogram to $30 per kilogram. Experiences about pressured labor upstream in the provide chain for polysilicon additionally led to a ban on imports in the U.S., although it’s tough to trace the provide chain and show which shipments had been linked to pressured labor. Environmental efficiency of the present factories can be opaque. Firms that purchase silicon wafers need extra choices, however don’t have them now, Needleman says.

Needleman began fascinated about options in solar manufacturing as a grad scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how. Later, whereas working with one other startup that was innovating on solar manufacturing, he realized that its course of could possibly be tailored to work with silicon, making it extra environment friendly. That firm, known as Power All over the place, ultimately moved in a unique route, to creating microgrids. However Needleman determined to purchase its IP and develop it at a startup of his personal, funded by a grant from the California Power Fee.

He compares the manufacturing course of to 3D printing: In the same method to how a 3D printer makes use of a powder to print out layers of materials, the new solar cells are “printed” from a single layer of powdered silicon connected to a substrate. The design makes use of a tenth of the silicon that may be used in a typical solar cell, takes 70% much less power to provide, and 90% much less water. The method can additionally use off-the-shelf manufacturing gear, making it simpler and cheaper to scale up new manufacturing amenities.

Leap Photovoltaic is at an early stage—it simply launched in 2020—however the workforce is working with Lawrence Nationwide Laboratory and the College of California, San Diego, to check elements of the design, with plans to start pilot manufacturing for early clients in 2023, and scale as much as mass manufacturing by 2024, an aggressive timeline that Needleman believes is possible. The strategy can make international manufacturing of solar cells aggressive; the firm plans to start in the U.S., the place producers spent half a billion {dollars} on imported solar cells final yr.

Leap Photovoltaic was a finalist in the Cleantech Open competitors, which asks corporations to make use of a simple tool to estimate their potential influence on international greenhouse fuel emissions. As a result of the know-how might assist the solar trade scale up way more shortly, the potential could possibly be large: The corporate estimated that it might assist save greater than 100 gigatons of emissions by the center of the century.