Natcore research may cut cell production costs by using copper

Scientists working for Natcore Technology Inc. at Rice University have successfully used copper as a catalyst in silicon wafers instead of silver, a breakthrough that could mean huge savings in solar cell production as copper costs about $0.20 per troy ounce compared to $19.20 for silver.

In making a solar cell, nanoscale spikes are etched into a silicon wafer in order to maximize its surface area and attract the largest amount of sunlight possible. Metal particles are used as a catalyst in the process because etching is much accelerated near metal particles, according to Natcore researchers.

Initially, gold had been the metal of choice, but at nearly $3,000 per troy ounce, gold is an expensive alternative. Researchers initially switched to silver particles, since silver is much cheaper.

Researchers working at the Rice University lab of Prof. Andrew Barron, a Natcore co-founder, have now achieved successful results with copper. Even though a very small amount of the catalyst is used to make a single solar cell, the cost saving would be significant when building utility-scale facilities in the range of 100 MW.

According to the research by Barron and Rice graduate student and lead author Yen-Tien Lu, which appears in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal of Materials Chemistry A, a mix of copper nitrate, phosphorous acid, hydrogen fluoride and water makes the copper process possible. When applied to a silicon wafer, the phosphorus acid reduces the copper ions to copper nanoparticles. The nanoparticles aid in removing electrons from the silicon wafer’s surface, thereby oxidizing it. The oxidized silicon is dissolved by the hydrogen fluoride, resulting in a process that forges inverted pyramid-shaped structures into the silicon.

The result of fine-tuning the process is a black silicon layer with features as small as 590 nanometers (billionths of a meter) that reflect less than one percent of light. By comparison, a clean, un-etched silicon wafer reflects nearly 40% of light.

"There are still some challenges to overcome," Barron said. "The spikes would still require a coating to protect them from the elements, and we’re working on ways to shorten the process needed to perform the etching in the lab. We also need to completely remove the copper catalyst in order to extend the life of the solar cell. But this method is far more practical than previous methods," he added.

"This is another step in our push to bring down the cost of solar energy and to make it cost-competitive with energy derived from conventional sources," says Chuck Provini, Natcore’s president and CEO. "By switching from silver to copper, we’d lower the cost of producing a solar cell by a fraction of a penny. But over the course of a 100 MW facility, that’s a saving of more than $100,000."