NREL develops "game-changing" solar cell furnace

The new Optical Cavity Furnace (OCF) uses optics to heat and purify solar cells. NREL claims that the new furnace, which is expected to trump the traditionally-used thermal or raid-thermal-processing furnaces, provides "unmatched" precision and "sharply" increases cell efficiency.

Specifically, the researchers say they expect efficiencies to soon be boosted by four percentage points. "Our calculations show that some material that is at 16 percent efficiency now is capable of reaching 20 percent if we take advantage of these photonic effects," commented NREL Principal Engineer Bhushan Sopori.

In a statement released, the laboratory explains, "The Optical Cavity Furnace (OCF) combines the assets that photonics can bring to the process with tightly controlled engineering to maximize efficiency while minimizing heating and cooling costs."

The new furnace is said to use around half the energy of its standard counterparts, cost anything between a quarter to a half less, and, at a few minutes per solar wafer, has shorter process times.

It is comprised of an array of lamps in a chamber, which is lined with "super-insulating" and "highly reflective" ceramics. The geometric design has been described as both "complex" and "optimal".

NREL and its private-industry partner, AOS Inc., are reportedly currently building a manufacturing-size OCF capable of processing 1,200 wafers an hour. "Intrigued" by its potential, NREL says that "several" of the leading solar cell manufacturers have entered into cooperative research and development agreements.