Of solar commodification and hydrogen passivation

Hydrogen Passivation

BNEP’s Jenny Chase sees solar as a commodity, while UNSW’s Stuart Wenham touts processing technology that offers low-cost differentiation

Two leading lights in the solar industry provide different perspectives on the ongoing “PV modules are/are not a commodity” discussion in a pair of fresh features. On the “yes, they are” side (with a few caveats), Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Jenny Chase comments on new industry data and presents her argument for the commodity camp in an informative interview at PV-magazine. Although the “c” word is never mentioned, it’s clear from PV-Tech’s exclusive conversation with New South Wales University’s Stuart Wenham (via video from EU PVSEC and an online report) that he thinks solar cells and modules matriculate at a school of technologically differentiated products.

When asked why she thought “solar is more of a commodity than high-tech industry,” Jenny replied: “There are parts of solar which are high tech. Making silicon is a very high-technology process, in fact it consists of two high-technology processes end to end. Designing inverters is probably quite high-tech too, but making solar wafers, cells and modules is a commodity manufacturing business. You’ve got to have the equipment, and you’ve got to be good at turning out lots of goods that are all the same without wasting a lot of energy on materials. And you can buy the equipment off the shelf. If you and I decided to go into business making modules in the European Union and we could get ourselves, say €20 million to start with, we could probably do it within six months.” (Jenny’s comment stirs up a mental image of her in a module factory, attempting to get the encapsulation equipment to behave or eyeballing the flash tester results.)

She makes some fair points, but the grouping together of wafers, cells, and modules together as “commodity manufacturing” would probably get an argument from Stuart, who is still listed as chief technology officer at troubled Suntech in addition to his tenured UNSW professorial position. He dished to PV-Tech about a new academia-industry R&D collaboration (with 10 leading but as yet-unnamed Asian manufacturers on board so far) focused on a hydrogen passivation technique for improving crystalline silicon quality and eventually cell conversion efficiencies.

“Although hydrogen passivation is well known in the PV industry, Wenham said that recent research undertaken at UNSW has highlighted how poor that knowledge was and that the process could have significant benefits with a very low if any cost impact,” the story notes. “’So for us it’s all about controlling the charge state of the hydrogen when it’s inside the silicon, and if we can control that charge state then we can increase the mobility of the hydrogen by many orders of magnitude and increase its reactivity that enables it more effectively to passivate any defects or recombination sites within the silicon,’” he explained. “’And so it’s something applicable to everyone working with silicon that can be implemented at basically no additional cost.’”

“We are expecting it to have an impact pretty much immediately just on existing silicon technologies as it’s something we can slot right in there at the end of processing of existing cells,” Wenham explains. “But I think to get the full potential of it there will need to be some evolution in cell design, which our industry partners will be working with us on and by evolutionary processes and improving the cell design they will be able to definitely capitalize on the improvements in the silicon quality that this technology can offer.”

The cell processing initiative led by the now-mustachioed Stuart offers a variation of something that Jenny would probably like to see more of. “Research and development does have benefits down the line, but that’s very difficult to prove,” she believes. “I think it only starts being proven when the manufacturing companies are coming back and inviting institutes like Fraunhofer to be industry partners. I think that does happen but I don’t have any data supporting the value of R&D(!).”