NREL Installs Inkjet Workstations for Photovoltaics Research

iTi Solar today announced that the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has installed inkjet and spray workstations supplied by iTi Solar in NREL's advanced Atmospheric Processing Platform, which is located in the Process Development and Integration Laboratory at the National Center for Photovoltaics. NREL will use the iTi Solar workstations to develop low-cost atmospheric processing methods and materials for use in photovoltaic applications. iTi Solar is a division of iTi Corporation dedicated to advancing the economics of clean, renewable energy through the use of industrial inkjet technologies.

For many applications, solar cells today are not cost-competitive with more traditional sources of energy. Reducing material costs and process inefficiencies through inkjet technology is an important component in NREL's research project to reduce costs. Inkjet is emerging as a versatile, precise printing method to advance manufacturing processes while lowering substrate, materials and capital costs.

iTi Solar's Materials Deposition Systems (MDS), which are being used as part of NREL's research project, enable digital deposition of a wide range of fluids utilizing inkjet printhead and sprayer technologies. Inkjet technologies offer manufacturing cost efficiencies for silicon-based, thin-film and next generation photovoltaic cells.

"Inkjet printing is an attractive, viable alternative to many existing deposition approaches and has the potential to produce high-quality solar cells at reduced cost," said Dr. Maikel van Hest, scientist, NREL. "After a global competition, we selected iTi Solar's inkjet and sprayer systems."

Much of today's research is focused on thin-film photovoltaic cells as thin-film technology uses lower cost substrates compared to silicon and is suitable for applying solar panels to many surfaces from roof shingles to cell phones. Compared with traditional processes of coating, sputtering and etching, inkjet is an additive, direct material deposition process. Drop placement is digitally controlled so that only what is required is precisely deposited. This offers considerable savings in applications utilizing high cost fluids by reducing waste and raw material volumes. Because inkjet deposition is non-contact, there is less damage to materials and therefore a wider range of highly efficient but fragile substrate materials can be utilized in manufacturing.

Inkjet processes have the potential to greatly simplify the fabrication of solar panels by reducing the number of manufacturing steps, making more efficient use of expensive materials, and eliminating much of the vacuum equipment that often requires a clean room environment.

"Addressing the global need for efficient, economic renewable energy requires technology breakthroughs that improve conversion efficiencies and enable low-cost manufacturing to drive mass scale production," said Dr. Ross Mills, chairman, founder and chief technology officer, iTi Corporation. "We believe inkjet technologies combined with flexible, thin-film substrates hold the greatest promise for significantly reducing solar cell manufacturing costs and accelerating the use of solar energy."

"Substantial inkjet knowledge and expertise is crucial to successfully incorporate inkjet processes into production lines," added Mills. "With extensive experience and patented inkjet technologies, iTi is leveraging its proven leadership in mastering the intricacies of inkjet to deliver reliable, cost-effective manufacturing solutions to the solar industry."

NREL's Atmospheric Processing Platform is a sophisticated, multi-functional process line with integrated vacuum processing, materials analysis, inkjet and spray stations housed within atmospherically controlled chambers. Its purpose is to facilitate NREL research into the materials and processes required to reduce the manufacturing costs of solar cell technology.

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