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Is silicon soon to be replaced in thin-film PV applications?

Silicon has been widely used across the semiconductor industry, including in PV applications, but a number of research projects are underway to discover elements that could prove to be more efficient, lowering manufacturing costs.

Silicon has been widely used to create semiconductors on a commercial basis and is often the principal component, particularly in integrated circuits.

In its pure form, it is used to produce silicon wafers - which are used in photovoltaic (PV) applications - and across the semiconductor industry. Its electrical capabilities can be controlled, which is required for its use in integrated circuits, solar cells, transistors, microprocessors and other semiconductor devices.

However, a number of research projects are currently in place to discover which materials, such as gallium nitride, can be used to replace silicon in thin-film PV applications.

One of the most recent developments was announced by Empa - Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research. It noted that graphenes - two-dimensional carbon layers - could prove to be a semiconductor substitute for silicon because of qualities including being tear-resistant and a strong thermal conductor.

The potential for silicon to be replaced in thin-film PV applications has also been noted by the University of Cambridge s Centre for Gallium Nitride. It stated: "Gallium nitride is probably the most important semiconductor material since silicon. It emits brilliant light as well as being the key material for next-generation high-frequency, high-power transistors capable of operating at high temperatures."

In further evidence of the move away from silicon in thin-film PVs, it was announced at the start of the week that First Solar - which uses the semiconductor cadmium telluride (CdTe) in its thin-film PV modules - had sold its 21 megawatt solar energy project to NRG Energy.

The project is California s first utility-scale PV solar generation facility, highlighting how solar is becoming an increasingly popular source of energy and significant investment is being placed into it.

First Solar s thin-film PV panels convert sunlight directly into electricity with no water required. The facility is expected to generate more than 45,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

Another reason for the adoption of materials other than silicon is because of manufacturing costs. The organisation claims that CdTe thin-film technology can result in high-volume and low-cost solar modules. CdTe has "superior light absorption properties that result in higher output compared to traditional silicon modules, under cloudy and diffuse light conditions such as dawn and dusk", First Solar said.

Better performance at higher temperatures than traditional silicon modules can also be achieved.

As researchers strive to make solar technology more efficient to lower associated costs, the semiconductor industry may find that other elements soon replace silicon as their capabilities and properties become further known.ADNFCR-2855-ID-19479406-ADNFCR
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