CIGS market to double by 2015

While the solar photovoltaic market is tight and competitive, there is one arm researchers say is almost guaranteed to grow.

Copper indium gallium diselenide solar (CIGS) will double in installed capacity by 2015, according to a recently released research report from Lux Research. The market for CIGS is expected to be worth more than $2.3 billion by then.

“The big driver for us to look at this was all of the oversupply in the industry creating downward pressure,” said Lux analyst Pallavi Madakasiri. “For a new company to try to get in now is almost impossible.”

Traditional mono- and poly-crystalline solar photovoltaic modules have flooded the market causing dramatic price drops and lower profit margins for the companies building them.

In traditional thin-film technologies, First Solar completely dominates the market.

But CIGS have shown tremendous increases in conversion efficiency, reaching over 20 percent at the cell level, Madakasiri said.

Manufacturing and productions costs have also fallen off as processes have grown more efficient.

And most of the companies working in that market are still getting started.

“There has been a lot of interest and investment in CIGS,” Madakasiri said.

The technology is emerging with a lot of opportunity for growth, Madakasiri said, though it will face challenges, including a sharp fall in venture capital dollars.

Among those companies actively working in the market, some stand out.

“We used 12 different metrics to identify winners and losers,” Madakisiri said.

The criteria graded companies on their technical value, business execution, business maturity and capacity.

“Solar Frontier clearly leads the pack,” Madakasiri said.

That company has a solid position in the “dominant” quadrant of the Lux Research grid. Solar Frontier has already worked its way into emerging markets like India, where it is selling about 30 megawatts of CIGS cells a year.

“We also believe others have a very good chance of succeeding,” Madakasiri said.

Other contenders in the CIGS market are Global Solar, Avancis and Solibro. Madakasiri said she expects they could be very successful if they make good business decisions moving forward.

By: Amanda H. Miller

Tellurium, is there enough?

Tellurium (te-LOOR-i-em) is an element discovered by Franz Joseph Muller Von Reichenstein, a Romanian mining official in 1782. His work was forgotten until 1798 when a German Chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth named the new element Tellurium and gave all credit for it discovery to Reichenstein.

Tellurium is element number 52 on the periodic table it is a semi-metallic, crystalline and brittle. It is usually found as a dark gray powder. Be wary when handling this element it can give a person a foul smell for a considerable amount of time.

The main supply source of tellurium is as a by-product of copper mining, approximately 90%. It is the rarest of all the by-product metals, with the exception of Gold. The amount of tellurium in the earth’s crust is about .005 ppm. There are estimates of 150-500 t annually produced. The amount produced is very difficult to verify. For example the USA, Australia, Belgium, China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Phillipines and Russia do not report how much they mine or recycle each year for national security reasons. According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) the maximum possible annual production would be no more than 1,600 t per year. The global market for tellurium is miniscule compared to the copper market in turn this gives little incentive to the mining companies to invest in better, more efficient ways of extracting it.

The uses of tellurium include alloying component, semi-conductors, photo-diodes, solar cells, blasting caps, optical storage (CD-RW), computer memory (RAM), pyrotechnics, glass, ceramic paints and thermoelectric cooling devices. The largest use is as an alloying component to steel, aluminum, copper, tin and lead. It is used to improve the machinability of steel and copper.

The most exciting use of tellurium is in photovoltaic cells made from thin films of cadmium telluride. These solar panels are cheaper in cost per watt of electricity generating capacity than the traditional silicon panels. The firms making these solar panels will need approximately 80-100 t of tellurium per gigawatt of photovoltaic cell production. As stated earlier the annual production estimate is 150-500t. That means that the solar industry itself could use up most of the world’s production of tellurium in the coming years. There is serious debate as to whether the amount of global supply can meet the need of the solar industry.

For example in July 2009, India unveiled a US$19 billion plan to produce 20 GW of solar power by 2020. Under the plan, the use of solar-powered equipment and applications would be made compulsory in all government buildings, as well as hospitals and hotels. It has been said that this initiative alone will use up all the world’s production of solar cells.

In 2004 you could purchase tellurium for $10 per kg. Then the solar industry came along and disrupted the market. In August 2011 the price is hovering around $360 per kg. I find this to be an exciting moment in history. We are seeing commodity prices rise all around us. The population of the world is exploding. The Chinese are tightening their grips on their supplies of rare technical and rare earth metals.

There is a need for cleantech like never before and here we have an element in very tight supply. The next few years are going to be a very interesting time in the commodities market. I look forward to seeing where tellurium goes from here.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Thanks China! U.S. solar exports skyrocket 83 percent

Contrary to conventional wisdom, China’€™s boom in solar manufacturing has been a boon for U.S. companies. In 2010, U.S. exports of solar products skyrocketed 83 percent to $5.6 billion thanks to Chinese demand for raw material and equipment used to make photovoltaic modules, according to a new report by GTM Research from the Solar Energy Industries Association. More importantly, the U.S. was a $1.9 billion net exporter of solar energy products.

The upshot? The U.S. solar industry is pretty diverse, well-balanced and still poised for growth. The U.S solar industry is clearly central to the global supply chain, as the report suggests. More impressive is that rate of growth. In 2009, the U.S. solar industry had a positive trade flow of $723 million. A year later, it more than doubled.

The key phrase here is solar products, which mean the entire value chain including “€œsoft costs”€ such as installation labor, permitting, site preparation and financing. These soft costs made up nearly 50 percent of the total solar revenue in 2010.

Photovoltaic components accounted for more than 99 percent of the year’€™s exports with most of that supply heading for China and Germany. Polysilicon, the feedstock of crystalline silicon photovoltaic, was by far the largest category. Exports of polysilicon hit $2.5 billion, more than double the amount in 2009.

Highlights from the report:
Capital equipment exports were $1.4 billion

U.S. imports of PV products totaled $3.7 billion. The majority came from modules assembled overseas. China and Mexico were the top two sources of PV goods.

The U.S. was a net exporter of solar products to China last year by more than $240 million;

For every dollar spent on a U.S. solar installation in 2010, $0.75 accrued to the United States.

By Kirsten Korosec | August 30, 2011

Specialty Glass: Engineered for Greater Thin-Film Solar Efficiency

Improved performance and efficiency in photovoltaic systems have traditionally focused on advances in battery technology or charge controllers. Recently, however, solar module makers are looking at specialty glasses for better performance.

Both crystalline silicon and thin-film module makers have long known that low-iron soda lime glass can provide higher conversion efficiency relative to standard soda lime glass. Standard soda lime glass has been used in PV panels up until now, largely due to availability.

Low-iron glass provides higher optical transmittance as compared to standard soda lime glass

Float glass manufacturers throughout the world produce a range of thicknesses, with 3.2 millimeter thick soda lime being the most common due to its use in applications such as architecture, transportation and now solar modules. Though a number of factors contribute to increased solar cell efficiency, low-iron glass provides higher optical transmittance as compared to standard soda lime glass. Corning’€™s engineered glass, for example, provides optical transmittance performance that exceeds both.

If one considers the 400 nm to 900 nm wavelength range of the solar spectrum, measurements show that standard soda lime glass transmittance decreases rapidly from just below 90% at 400 nm to less than 80% at 900 nm. Low-iron soda lime glass performs better, exceeding 90% transmittance at 400 nm, though the transmittance declines to less than 90% at 900 nm.

High optical transmittance is only one factor which contributes to higher solar cell efficiency. Iron-free, engineered glass has been proven to increase thin-film cell efficiency even further.

High conversion efficiency creates significant value.

Specialty glass further enables high efficiency through its ability to withstand high absorber layer deposition temperatures. While soda lime glass is readily available for photovoltaic applications, the ability of this glass to withstand high temperature (up to 600°C and beyond) is a limiting factor. New engineered glass from Corning presents the opportunity to raise absorber deposition temperatures, with demonstrated absolute efficiency increases of greater than +1% achieved by depositing thin film absorber layers at high temperature. The use of increased absorber deposition temperature results in a higher quality semiconductor film, and hence, higher solar cell efficiency.

Raising cell efficiency should be looked at as more than just a technical measure of solar industry progress. Increased efficiency creates higher energy output for a given system size, and can reduce overall balance of system (BOS) costs.

Consider a side-by-side comparison of a hypothetical thin-film module with an area of one square meter. It’€™s reasonable to assume that soda lime glass enables a module efficiency of 10%, whereas the use of a specialty glass could potentially increase this to 12%. A 100 W module would now produce 120 W when manufactured with engineered glass. Efficiency and power output are correspondingly increased by 20%. Reduced weight reduces costs

A secondary benefit of using thinner, specialty glass is weight reduction. Specialized glass can be produced in different thicknesses to meet customer specifications. Instead of the traditional 3.2 mm soda lime glass, module makers will find engineered glass to be significantly thinner, no greater than 2 mm.

The same one square meter module described above using one sheet of 1.5 mm specialty glass combined with 3.2 mm soda lime glass weighs 28% less than the same module using two pieces of 3.2 mm soda lime. The result is lower BOS costs by reducing transportation and installation expenses.
More efficient, lighter, thinner but is it reliable?

Corning specialty glass for thin-film photovoltaic solar panels. The majority of solar module warranties cover a period of 25 years, and depending on location, the installation may be exposed to wind, rain, hail, snow and even blowing sand. Despite being much thinner, the special nature of engineered glass makes it reliable for solar installations. Engineered glasses made by Corning meet or exceed International Electronic Commission (IEC) standards.

This includes withstanding a 25 mm ice ball impact at 23 m/s, wind load resistance of 2,400 Pa, and heavy snow load of 5,400 Pa.
Looking ahead.

As the trend indicates, the glass of choice used in solar modules is changing as new, engineered glasses are being developed and customized to achieve higher conversion efficiency. Corning is tailoring glasses for each of the leading thin-film technologies: cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium di-selenide (CIGS), and Si-Tandem. Corning’€™s research has produced consistently high cell efficiencies for CdTe, and achieved a world record 11.9% cell efficiency for Si-Tandem.

Independent of technology, increased conversion efficiency and lower cost per watt is vital for the long-term success of the PV market.

Written by Dr. Mark Krol | 10 August 2011

About the Author
Dr. Mark Krol is Commercial Technology Director at Corning Photovoltaic Glass Technologies in Corning, New York.

Chinese indium export policies pushing price over $1000/kg

Indium is heading for prices of more than $1000/kg, according to industry analyst firm NanoMarkets in a new report “€˜Chinese Indium Strategies: Threats and Opportunities for Displays, Photovoltaics and Electronics”€™, which examines the impact on the electronics and related materials industries of recent Chinese policies to restrict the export of indium. Even higher prices have been suggested in the Chinese press — as much as $3000/kg.

China is the world’€™s largest supplier of indium by far, accounting for almost three-quarters of world reserves and about half of production. As such, its policies affect the markets for all indium-related electronic materials.

This activity has recently been formalized in a new Chinese five-year plan, which is designed to stimulate domestic Chinese high-tech industries. NanoMarkets claims that this move by the Chinese government will have significant negative implications for several classes of electronics products (in the areas of displays, lighting, photovoltaics, compound semiconductor chips, lead-free solders). The report therefore examines China’€™s evolving indium policy in both economic and political terms and explains how it will act as a catalyst for creating new growth opportunities in both the extraction industry and advanced electronic materials industries worldwide, looking especially at the impact on markets for novel transparent conductors and compound semiconductors.

In particular, high indium prices may force the conservative display industry to shift to ITO alternatives, especially those using nanomaterials, believes NanoMarkets.

Japanese indium users€”, who currently use 70% of China’€™s indium production,€” may find themselves without sufficient indium within a year. As a result, NanoMarkets expects firms in countries that have not been large suppliers of indium (including Australia, Canada, Laos and Peru) to rush into the market.

NanoMarkets also predicts that, for the first time, there will be significant amounts of indium extraction from sources other than zinc mines (e.g. sources such as tin and tungsten mining). The Chinese indium policy seems certain to incentivize new sources outside China to produce indium, either through primary extraction methods or through recycling/reclamation, the firm reckons.

Also, a sharp rise in the price of indium will harm the resurgent copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) photovoltaic (PV) industry, but in turn this will open the door for cadmium telluride (CdTe) and crystalline silicon (c-Si) PVs, which will become more price competitive, says NanoMarkets. In addition, new classes of absorber materials (zinc or tin) may emerge that are CIGS-like but don’€™t actually use indium.

Tellurium Nerds Gold

Tellurium, used in both photovoltaic and thermoelectric technologies, has become a recent topic of debate in cleantech and materials science because of its rarity. With massive recent commodity price increases in rare earths and precious metals, I attempt to make some sense of the tellurium demand picture and whether we might expect a similar rush for the inconspicuous chalcogen element.


Tellurium (Te) is an element, number 52 on the periodic table, whose rarity on earth rivals only that of a handful of other elements, including gold. It is the namesake of the Telluride Film Festival and Telluride, Colorado, a mining town where gold telluride was thought to be found in the late 1800s.

The chart above shows the natural abundance of elements on Earth. For all practical purposes, this picture is static: it is the result only of world-formative events like the big bang and major asteroid impacts (despite any attempt at alchemy, black magic old or particle accelerator new). The fact that gold and tellurium have similar abundances on earth is merely a coincidence, but they are nonetheless found together in alloys of tellurium, or tellurides. Tellurides like calaverite were initially foolishly discarded during the first gold rush of 1849 and the subsequent discovery of gold in them spawned a second gold rush a few years later. Mining and metallurgy, an often high-tech profession at the time, was probably the only field that had tellurium in its vernacular.

Unlike tellurium, gold is the element of basilicas and twenty twos not because of its rarity, but because of its (anti) corrosive properties. Technically speaking, gold’€™s chemical reduction potential is positive, meaning it requires extra energy to become oxidized and therefore it never loses its luster while adorning our teeth and bathroom door handles. Tellurium, on the other hand, was not blessed with the pretty gene. Its current spot price on metals markets (~$200/kg, 200x cheaper than gold) reflects this.

Any engineer will tell you that looks aren’€™t everything. Tellurium, in the throws of its own fifteen minutes, has the potential to become similarly priced in the long term due to its increasing use in the highest tech applications. Tellurium has a rich history, if anything, having played a role in every stage of mining and materials science since 1849. During the space race, mining and metallurgy eventually became materials science, an interdisciplinary field of science and engineering incorporating physics and chemistry. With the discovery/invention of quantum mechanics in the 1910s and 20s, solid state physics was born and so was the modern notion of a semiconductor material. It would be thirty years before a semiconductor was applied to computation through microchips, and it would be silicon that proved ideal for this application. Initially, however, an alloy of tellurium, bismuth telluride, was the star of the solid state physics community for its fantastic Peltier, or thermoelectric, properties. A Soviet physicist who published much of the seminal work on solid state physics named Abram Ioffe believed that the commercial application of semiconductors would come in refrigeration through something known as the Peltier effect. The Peltier effect is when a semiconductor material pumps heat when electricity is made to flow through it. Any material that does this efficiently is called a thermoelectric.

Clearly, bismuth telluride and thermoelectric technology lost to the common compressor refrigerator, but one can nonetheless find these semiconductor coolers in a few places. If you have a quiet wine fridge in your living room, a climate controlled seat that cools you down in your Ford F150, or night vision goggles, then you’€™ll find a Peltier cooler inside.

Today tellurium is seeing its first real growth in use in a different application: solar cells. First Solar (FSLR), darling of all solar startups, uses a thin-film of cadmium telluride (CdTe, or €œcad-tell€) as one of the functional layers in its cells that helps collect sunlight. The company is increasing production quickly. Raw cadmium and tellurium demand is increasing and alas, tellurium could finally have its day. The question is whether Te, currently priced at ~$200/kg on the spot market and with the same supply constraints as gold, will ever have the type of demand that has gold currently trading two hundred times higher at ~$40,000/kg.


Tellurium supply has historically never been much of a concern to anyone. Today tellurium is produced from the refining of copper in the same way gold is produced, as the byproduct of an electrolytic refining process that manifests itself in nasty resultant anode sludges. Tellurium is produced primarily by a Canadian company named 5N Plus which extracts it from these sludges. According to the US Geological Survey, 200 metric tonnes of tellurium were mined in 2009 worldwide and the world can sustain 1,600 metric tonnes of production per year maximum (but these estimations are hard to make accurately“ see Jack Lifton’s piece on tellurium supply here). In comparison, there were about 2,500 tonnes of gold mined in 2009, and 165,000 tonnes of gold have been mined, ever. Gold production peaked in 1999 at 2,600 tonnes. Let’s assume that tellurium could be produced at similar levels to gold going forward.

Gold demand currently comes from three areas: jewelry (~2,750 tonnes/year), reserve assets (~350 tonnes/year), and the electronics industry (~350 tonnes/year). Adding this up we get 3,450 tonnes/year demand, well over the amount produced. The difference is made up from both recycling of jewelry and the selling of reserve assets.

Gold, however, as an element that is also tied to the world economy through federal reserves and currencies, is not truly a commodity because its price is not generally close to its marginal cost of production. For that reason, let’€™s consider an element that might be slightly more similar to gold (Au) in that sense: platinum (Pt) or palladium (Pd). Both of these elements currently trade at $60,000/kg and $25,000/kg, respectively. The order of magnitude of these spot prices are the same as that of gold’€™s; while these elements tend to follow gold and are therefore somewhat subject to price swings that may not be concomitant with economic fundamentals, tellurium’€™s price can still be expected to rise significantly, albeit perhaps not quite by 200x, if demand for it was also >2,000 tonnes/year.

So how could tellurium demand increase by a factor of ten? Should First Solar be worried? Should producers of bismuth telluride thermoelectric devices be worried?

Tellurium Demand

First, let’€™s examine how much tellurium First Solar uses, and what this costs as a fraction of their total cost to produce a CdTe photovoltaic cell.

The density of CdTe is 5.8 g/cc. This gives 3.08 g/cc of Te in CdTe.

The efficiency of FSLR’€™s modules is ~11%. At a solar irradiance of ~1100 W/m^2, their cells will have a maximum power density of ~121 W/m^2.

At a CdTe film thickness of 3 µm, and at a 2.7 GW target production in 2012, they will be using roughly 71 m^3 of tellurium per year in the cells alone.

This would mean using 218 metric tonnes of tellurium per year in their cells. As described earlier, global production is currently estimated at 200 metric tonnes/year and could go as high as 2,500 if we do a straight comparison to gold.

This means FSLR would have to be producing somewhere near 27 GW per year of solar panels to ever be truly supply constrained by tellurium. Considering 20 GW of new power plants were built in the US in 2009, and that 550 GW of new capacity is expected to be installed in China between 2010 and 2020, 27 GW of PV production per year is somewhat plausible many years out and by no means likely.

To understand whether First Solar is shielded from volatility in the price of tellurium, let’€™s look at what the cost of tellurium is within their cells. From our analysis above it takes 80 metric tonnes of tellurium to manufacture a gigawatt of cell, assuming FSLR’€™s CdTe deposition is 100% efficient in that no tellurium is wasted or lost (not the case, but we’€™ll stick with this assumption). At $200/kg, 80 metric tonnes costs $16 million, or 1.6¢/Watt. At an overall production cost of $1.00/Watt, the price of tellurium would have to increase by at least 10x before FSLR would feel significant pain. It is safe to say that they are not going to affect the tellurium market nor be sensitive to much volatility in it with business as usual.

Now let’€™s look at thermoelectrics and their application for something converse to refrigeration: power generation. Bismuth telluride and a similar alloy, lead telluride, have been studied for a long time for their ability to generate electricity from an applied temperature gradient such as a waste heat source. The automotive industry, in particular, has big plans to incorporate thermoelectric waste heat recovery technology into engine tailpipes to turn wasted heat in exhaust back into electricity. These systems require roughly 1 kg of bismuth or lead telluride per car typically, roughly half of which is tellurium.

Will adoption of automotive thermoelectric generators cause a tellurium shortage? About 60 million motor vehicles were produced in 2009, only a tiny fraction of them not with an internal combustion engine. If each had a thermoelectric generator on them with 0.5 kg of tellurium within, over 30,000 metric tonnes of tellurium would be required per year€“ over 10x more production than what is thought to be possible, and over 100x more than what is currently produced annually. Modestly, if only 7 million cars per year had thermoelectric generators (all of GM’€™s and BMW’€™s autos, for instance) we would expect tellurium demand to be 3,500 metric tonnes/year. Even if we assume this tellurium usage could come down by a factor of ten through going to more power dense configurations and by using thin film materials, the long term picture is still bleak. Surely a problem for anyone expecting to scale this technology€“ and for FSLR for that matter! (Note FSLR’€™s relationship with the largest tellurium supplier 5N Plus.)

More importantly, however, is that it currently costs $100 for just the tellurium in an automotive thermoelectric waste heat recovery generator, and these systems typically produce no more than 500 W of power. In the low margin automotive industry, $0.20/Watt will never cut it; the question of whether the automotive industry will ever impose a tellurium shortage practically moot.

Gold, platinum, palladium, and rare earth elements have all seen their values skyrocket in recent months. While there is nothing immediately suggesting tellurium will follow suit, it will surely be an interesting metal to follow over the next decade – and an analysis like this hopefully helps guide technologists away from the use of telluride materials in all but the niche-est of applications.

Matthew L. Scullin is CEO of Alphabet Energy, Inc., a producer of thermoelectric materials that use no tellurium. This article was previously published on his Scullin blog.

Thin-film PV comes one step closer to rivaling crystalline PV in efficiency

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)certified a thin-film MiaSolé photovoltaic (PV) panel at15.7 percent, the most efficient copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) panel the lab has tested.It’s an important step as CIGSmanufacturers strive to close the efficiency gap with the more expensive crystalline silicon PV, which has traditionally been more efficient.While NREL has tested a CIGS PV cell that reached about 20 percent efficiency, that cell was specially developed in the lab and was only a square centimeter in size.

“The significance of the modules tested at NREL is that they’re all done on the product line,” said Stephen Barry, vice president of corporate development at MiaSolé.

The news, he said, comes on the heels of MiaSolé’s announcement of modules rated at 14.3 percent efficiency in September 2010. The goal is to achieve a CIGS module that is as efficient as the most powerful CIGS cells tested at NREL,

“We believe there’s more headroom there [for efficiency increases],” he said.

“This is a very exciting result, especially when it comes so soon after the previous 14.3 percent achievement from last September,” NREL solar researcher Dr. Rommel Noufi said in a press release. “An almost 1.5 percent absolute increase in efficiency in such a short time on a continuous roll-to-roll manufacturing line is impressive and demonstrates good process control and a validation of the MiaSolé approach.”

At present, because thin-film PV is behind crystalline silicon PV in terms of efficiency, it need more space to produce electricity. Therefore, most thin-film PVs available today are being used in large-scale applications like commercial warehouses and solar farms and not for residential purposes. As firms like MiaSolé close that efficiency gap, they will likely become more suitable for residential installations. Barry realizes this and said that the application of their product will change as they gain ground with efficiency.

Thin-film PV also allows for more flexibility in design and use.

For instance, MiaSolé’s modules are deposited on a flexible steel substrate, which makes them physically flexible, something that crystalline silicon panels can’t achieve. However, at present, they’re encapsulated in glass, Barry said. But the company has an active building-integrated PV program, he said. And in the future, its PV materials could take the form of roofing for instance.

Don’t expect the 15.7 percent efficient module on the shelf at your neighborhood PV store tomorrow, however.

“We have our MR-107, a 10.5 percent efficient module,” said Barry. “We’re shipping those now in volumes. We have submitted to UL a 13 percent efficient module.”

He said the 13-percent efficient modules will be in production in the second quarter, and couldn’t estimate when the new, more powerful modules would reach commercial availability.