Fayetteville Firm Moves Closer to Solar Breakthrough

Silicon Solar Solutions of Fayetteville has developed a method of improving the efficiency of solar cells by 15 percent, and the patent for its technology has been moved from provisional to pending by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

Silicon Solar Solutions is a Genesis Technology Incubator client at the University of Arkansas and a client firm of Innovate Arkansas and the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority. It received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in December to further advance the technology, developed in partnership with fellow UA graduate business-plan team Picasolar.

Silicon chief scientist Seth Shumate invented the self-aligned hydrogenated selective emitter for N-type solar cells, which increases efficiency. He serves on the Picasolar team and helped lead it to a win last month at the prestigious IBK Capital-Ivey Business Plan Competition at the University of Western Ontario. The team won $20,000 for first place.

Shumate and Silicon CEO Douglas Hutchings believe the emitter can save solar manufacturers millions of dollars in production costs.

"If successful, this approach represents the single largest technology leap in solar since 1974," Hutchings said in a news release issued by the UA. "We have demonstrated it on lab-scale cells already. We're all excited."

Silicon and Picasolar utilize facilities at the UA's Arkansas Research & Technology Park, where Shumate uses a vacuum chamber with a tungsten filament, similar to a light bulb, which heats to 3,452 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the UA, when "hydrogen is introduced to the chamber it hits the surface of a tungsten filament, separating the hydrogen atoms."

"Those atoms then go into the solar cell and do their magic," said Shumate, a doctoral student in the UA's microelectronics-photonics program.

The technology "increases solar power conversion efficiency and reduces the amount of silver needed to produce high-efficiency solar cells, thereby lowering material costs."

Silicon plans to raise $60,000 of outside investment for the emitter, which will secure an additional $30,000 from NSF. The next step is a $750,000 Phase II grant in January 2014 that would allow Silicon to demonstrate "lab results on industrial-quality cells and start implementing the technology in existing solar-cell manufacturing lines."