NREL Research, Crystal Solar win R&D 100 Award

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A growth system developed by California-based Crystal Solar and the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that can produce thin solar cells quickly and at low cost was named one of the year’s most significant innovations by R&D Magazine.

The publication honored NREL with two innovation awards — one for its solar cell research and the other for an ultra-efficient supercomputer platform — as part of its 52nd R&D 100 Awards, announced on Friday by the editors of R&D Magazine.

The awards — known in the research and development community as "the Oscars of Innovation" — recognize the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year across a wide range of industries, including telecommunications, optics, high-energy physics, materials science, chemistry and biotechnology.

"We at NREL are gratified that our innovative work in energy efficiency and renewable energy continues to be honored with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry," NREL Director Dan Arvizu said. "Investments in energy research and development not only create jobs in America but help advance the goal of a clean energy future."

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz added, "These awards recognize the tremendous value of our National Labs. Research and development at the National Labs continues to help our nation address its energy challenges and pursue the scientific and technological innovations necessary to remain globally competitive."

Innovative growth system lowers cost of monocrystalline silicon wafers

NREL worked with California- based Crystal Solar to demonstrate the viability of high-efficiency thin monocrystalline silicon (Si) solar cells and modules that are less than 80 microns thick and to show that they can be grown at low-cost through an epitaxial process.

Founded in Santa Clara, California, in 2008, Crystal Solar is a pioneer in the development of high efficiency solar cells and modules using its breakthrough Direct Gas to Wafer manufacturing technology, which allows for direct conversion of feedstock gas to mono-crystalline silicon wafers, thereby radically reducing the cost structure of PV solar panels.

The Direct Monocrystalline Silicon Wafer Growth by the High-Throughput Epitaxy Team also showed that the process can grow cells in large quantity at a cost of about $0.50 per watt, which NREL calls "an important threshold toward America’s goal of cleaner energy future."

The growth system produces cells at half the cost and 100 times the speed of conventional epitaxial reactors, opening the door to rapid commercialization, the research facility added.

NREL performed characterization and reliability measurements on cells fabricated by Crystal Solar and collaborated with the company’s technical team to develop and implement modifications to the measured cells, contributing to improved cell performance and reliability.

Leading the Crystal Solar team was T.S. Ravi, V. Siva and J. Vatus. NREL’s team included Harin Ullal, Bhushan Sopori and Steve Johnson.

NREL’s other R&D 100 award, in collaboration with Hewlett-Packard, was for the HP Apollo 8000 System, which uses component-level warm-water cooling to dissipate heat generated by the supercomputer, thus eliminating the need for expensive and inefficient chillers in the data center.

The energy-saving approach based on warm-water cooling was a key reason that the building in which the supercomputer sits, NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility, was awarded LEED Platinum designation and named 2014 Laboratory of the Year by R&D Magazine.

In addition, the innovative design allows waste heat from the computer to be captured and used to heat office and laboratory space, achieving even higher efficiency levels.

NREL’s two awards bring to 57 the number of R&D 100 awards the research laboratory has won since 1982.

Winners of the R&D 100 Awards are selected by an independent judging panel and the editors of R&D Magazine. The R&D 100 Awards Ceremony will take place in Las Vegas on November 7.

A complete list of this year’s winners is available here.