AQT Solar will start cranking out solar cells next month using hard drive-based production machines, AQT Solar CEO Michael Bartholomeusz told us on Thursday at the company’s official factory open house in Sunnyvale, Calif. The company’s factory tour featured political dignitaries who gushed about innovation, job creation and their roles in it all.
Unlike many other startups using similar materials to make thin film solar — copper, indium, gallium, sulfur and selenium — AQT won’t be depositing its material on rolls of flexible metal foil. Instead, the company, founded in 2007, has developed a sputtering process to deposit CIGSS on 6-inch glass pieces that can be drop-in replacements for crystalline silicon cells. Those cells are then assembled into panels.
Crystalline silicon solar panels dominate the global market today, compared with alternatives made with ultrathin cells that use little or no silicon. Thin films are supposed to be cheaper to make than crystalline silicon panels, though that advantage might be eroding as a result of a big drop in silicon prices in the last year and half.
At the new factory in Sunnyvale, AQT has installed a big machine bought from Intevac for depositing CIGSS on glass (AQT plans to stop using sulfur by 2012). It will be able to complete 400 cells per hour, Bartholomeusz said. AQT’s customers, the panel manufacturers, will put 60 cells in each panel, which should have a 205-watt rating, said Kirk Hayes, an equipment and site operations engineer at AQT. The machine features 20 deposition chambers, though AQT plans to use six initially, Hayes said. The additional chambers will give AQT room to improve its manufacturing process and boost production rates later, he added.
Cells made from the Intevac equipment will then go to equipment in another room for screen-printing metallic lines that serve as highways for carrying electricity produced from the cells. After that, the cells go through testing to determine their power ratings and for quality control. Equipment for screen-printing and testing will arrive within weeks, Bartholomeusz said. The new factory will initially have the capacity to produce 15 megawatts of solar cells annually.
AQT was able to make prototype cells with around 12 percent efficiency when I spoke with Bartholomeusz last November. On Thursday, he said that the commercial cells should get an average of 14 percent efficiency (he was aiming for 16 percent efficiency). A solar panel with 14 percent efficiency cells would have about 12 percent efficiency. The company expects to boost the cell efficiency by 1 percentage point each year, Bartholomeusz said.
Bartholomeusz said AQT’s manufacturing costs could reach 60 cents per watt in 2013-14. The company has more than one customer, though it’s only disclosed one so far: Solar Enertech. AQT currently has lined up orders for 20 megawatts, Bartholomeusz said.
The first project that will use solar panels with AQT cells is a 2-megawatt installation by Sol Pacifico for its resort in Baja, Mexico. The project is scheduled to start next year.
The idea of marrying CIGS technology with crystalline silicon panel production is interesting, but it doesn’t give AQT an advantage unless it can sell its products. Many of its competitors, such as MiaSole and Stion, are building larger factories in order to lower manufacturing costs. AQT will have to do the same.