ARCHIVED - Quantum leap in solar cell technology

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April 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Despite significant progress, solar power still does not compete with fossil fuels or large electric grids in meeting a significant portion of a nation's energy demands. That's because today's conventional silicon-based photovoltaic cells are still too inefficient and expensive to manufacture for large-scale electricity generation. But recent advances in nanotechnology and photonics could change all that, according to Dr. Simon Fafard, the former NRC scientist who founded Cyrium Technologies. Thanks to support from NRC and the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre, this young Canadian firm has developed an innovation that will significantly improve the efficiency of solar power generation while reducing its cost.

After working for NRC and the optoelectronics industry, Dr. Fafard founded Cyrium Technologies in late 2002 to design and produce photovoltaic solar cells. The company is riding on the exceptional expertise of Dr. Fafard and his team in fabricating custom-tailored quantum dot materials — the heart of the advance his company will soon bring to market.

Cyrium solar cell samples are inspected and tested to verify and optimize their photovoltaic performance after final processing at the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre.
Cyrium solar cell samples are inspected and tested to verify and optimize their photovoltaic performance after final processing at the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre.

"Quantum dots are tiny nano-engineered crystals with specific optical properties dictated by their size and shape," explains Dr. Fafard. "By controlling their growth conditions, we can produce crystals that will absorb a particular segment of the solar spectrum." Smaller dots absorb more of the blue part of the spectrum, while bigger ones absorb more of the red part. Crystals of the right composition, size and shape can capture the near-infrared part of the spectrum, of particular interest to solar cell development.

Today's most efficient technology for generating electricity from solar radiation is triple-junction solar cells based primarily on gallium-arsenide semiconductors. Triple-junction technology converts a much higher proportion of light energy into electricity than conventional silicon solar cells, which deliver about 15 to 18 percent. Although today's best triple-junction solar cells are about twice as efficient as silicon solar cells, they still need to be more efficient to improve the economics of solar power.

According to Dr. Fafard, the drawback of today's triple-junction solar cells is that the middle junction absorbs too little of the solar spectrum, which limits the overall efficiency of the device. With custom-tailored quantum dots added to the middle junction, the Cyrium device is much more efficient. "By adding the quantum material we produce in controlled growth conditions, we can currently deliver more than 10 percent greater efficiency than today's best triple-junction devices. And, once optimized for photovoltaic concentrators (CPVs), our enhancement will bring our solar cells up to about 44 percent efficiency," he says.

Cyrium's unique contribution and expertise is its capacity to manipulate the production of quantum dots — man-made semiconductors — to capture a very precise range of light wavelength. Dr. Fafard filed for a patent in 2003, and today, Cyrium is the only company in Canada pursuing this application of quantum dots.

"Within the year, we will be selling our high-performance solar cells to CPV manufacturers throughout North America," says Dr. Fafard. These manufacturers will incorporate Cyrium solar cell chips into their product and sell it to big box stores, municipal power stations or remote, off-grid communities. "With our enhancement of today's CPV technology and enough volume, I believe we will be able to reach grid parity — the cost of coal-generated electricity."

Cyrium has won the backing of three major venture capital firms. The Business Development Bank, Chrysalix Energy and Pangaea Ventures have invested about $6 million to help Cyrium create and share its prototypes with potential customers.

Dr. Fafard calls it a strategic decision to open the first Cyrium office within NRC's industry partnership facility in Ottawa. Cyrium has agreements to use NRC's labs and equipment, and has also received support from the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program. "One of the best advantages of being at NRC is the access we have to the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre in the same building," he says. Because the CPFC is helping Cyrium fabricate its prototype solar cells, the young firm doesn't have to invest large amounts in its own labs and equipment while trying to break into the market.

With the quantum enhancement Cyrium is offering, solar power may soon become one of the world's most viable alternatives to fossil fuels. "We probably won't see large-scale adoption in Canada in the near future," he says. "But markets in the sunniest parts of Australia, Asia, the United States and Europe are ripe for the taking."

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