Simulations find answers for cheaper, more efficient thin-film photovoltaics

Panneaux de cellules photovoltaïques

Digital modelling with HPC Midlands and Loughborough University allowed Applied Multilayers and Power Vision Ltd. to discover the potential for cheaper and more effective solar panels without having to perform costly experiments.

Challenge

Solar power production almost doubled in the UK in 2014. Photovoltaic panel generation spiked to five gigawatts (5GW) at the end of 2014 from 2.8GW at the end of 2013.

But considerable capital investment and a poor return on investment for commonly used silicon-based panels means continued growth will rely on cheaper component material and production methods.

Thin film photovoltaic panels are a major step forward. These technically advanced panels are lighter, generate more watts per pound and can be installed in greater densities and in areas where silicon-based panels cannot. However, cost remains high as those currently in production use indium tin oxide (ITO), a solution in short supply, as a key component for their transparent conductive oxide (TCO) layer.

Solution

Zinc oxide (ZnO), an inorganic compound with many uses, could be the key.

The panels comprise layers of material that are deposited at the atomistic level through evaporation and magnetron sputtering. Experts at Loughborough University have utilised HPC Midlands to create complex computer simulations of these techniques to investigate their effect on the growth of ZnO as well as the panel’s outer reflective coating.

Despite huge advances in molecular dynamics (MD) modelling thin film growth over long timescales in unfeasible on traditional workstations. The use of HPC infrastructure and new methodologies developed at Loughborough has enabled the research team to undertake simulations on potential effects from a wide range of temperature and deposition condition.

Impact

The simulations have highlighted optimal conditions so that defects can be reduced, increasing the eventual operational efficiency of panels. The results demonstrate that ZnO is likely to be a viable alternative to ITO, potentially driving down the cost for more efficient thin film panels.

“The work performed by Loughborough was extremely useful as the models enabled us to simulate deposition by magnetron sputtering computationally – without having to perform a series of controlled experiments,” said Tony Williams, CEO of Power Vision Ltd.