What are Thin Film Solar Panels?

Mal Baxter

Thin film solar panels are made up of thin film solar cells (TFSC). They are made by applying photovoltaic (PV) material on a substrate in microscopic layers, from nanometers to tens of micrometers thick. Photovoltaic materials vary, as do application methods. Materials include amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and dye-sensitized solar cells (DSC). The use of this technology permits the application of solar-energy capturing panels in a wide range of products and uses.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Products include the familiar solar strips found in calculators, but extend to small films that can be flexed and applied to items ranging from household products to larger panels and sheets used in gathering PV energy to electrically power buildings. Thin film solar panels are integrated into roof coverings and window glazing, which may also serve as tinting. An advantage of this technology is low weight and wind resistance; the panels can even be walked on. These panels, however, require yearly maintenance, as they naturally attract dust, aerosols, and even snow, all of which will hamper their efficiency in solar energy conversion.

The most advanced thin film technology is amorphous silicon, which contains about 1/300 of the active material found in a crystalline-silicon cell, such as is often found in solar calculators. This material is applied to a substrate such as plastic, metal, or glass. Thin film solar panels can be constructed for use with buildings and vehicles, and even rolled up for portable recharging of personal electronics like laptops. Virtually any technology that relies upon a steady supply of power can benefit from the use of a product made from photovoltaic thin film, which converts sunlight into direct current (DC) electrical power.

In terms of cost, thin film cells come cheaper than conventional crystalline cells, but they are also less efficient. Some manufacturers apply multiple layers of varying materials in order to capture more of the solar spectrum and boost efficiency of their thin film solar panels. In this, the new technology provides a distinct advantage over conventional, single-band solar cells.

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As of 2011, the process of coating large areas of glass had made thin film solar panels harder to mass produce at an effective cost, compared with crystalline-silicon technologies. Solar energy remains the cheaper energy alternative to small-scale energy production using generators and fossil fuels, particularly in areas not serviced by a power grid. Government subsidies and commercial interests have continued to generate incentives for the popularization of these energy-alternative products.

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