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Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy

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Published by: pcsamy on Sep 29, 2010
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Silicon, the raw material for computer chips and solar cells, is the second most
common element in the earth ’ s crust after oxygen. However, in nature silicon occurs
almost exclusively as an inclusion in quartz, sand and silicate rock or as silicic acid
in the world ’ s oceans. Even the human body contains around 20 milligrams of
silicon per kilogram of body weight.

Pure silicon is usually extracted from quartz sand. Chemically, quartz sand is pure
silicon dioxide (SiO 2 ). For silicon to be produced from it, high temperatures are
used to sequester the oxygen atoms (O 2 ). This process is called reduction and is
carried out in arc furnaces at temperatures of around 2000 ° C. The result is industrial
raw silicon with a purity of 98 to 99%.

Raw silicon has to be purified further before it can be used to produce solar
cells. The Siemens method is the normal procedure followed. Hydrogen chloride is
used to convert the raw silicon into trichlorosilane, which is then distilled. At high
temperatures of 1000 to 1200 ° C the silicon is then separated again into long
bars. The polycrystalline solar silicon produced in this way has 99.99% purity
(Figure 5.4 ).

93

5.2 Production of Solar Cells – from Sand to Cell

Figure 5.4 Polycrystalline silicon for solar cells. Left: Raw silicon. Middle: Silicon blocks. Right: Silicon

wafers. Photos: PV Crystalox Solar plc.

The silicon is melted down again to produce semiconductor silicon for computer
chips and monocrystalline solar cells. In the crucible process invented by Polish
chemist Jan Czochralski, a silicon crystal is dipped into a crucible with a silicon
melt and then slowly pulled upwards in a rotating movement. The melted silicon
attaches itself to the crystal and a long, round silicon rod is created. In the process
the silicon crystals align in one direction. This creates monocrystalline silicon. Most
of the impurities remain in the melt crucible so that the semiconductor silicon is left
with purities of over 99.9999%.

In the next step, band saws cut the long silicon rods into thin slices, called wafers.
This sawing process produces major waste, and up to 50% of the valuable silicon
material is lost as a result. The alternative is for two thin wires to be pulled through
the liquid silicon melt. With this procedure, thin silicon wafers are formed between
the two wires. Immersion in acid will remove sawing damage from wafers and
smooth the surfaces. Several years ago silicon wafers had a thickness of 0.3 to
0.4 mm. To save material and costs, attempts are now being made to reduce the
wafer thickness to under 0.2 mm. Technically, this is a major challenge as the ultra -
thin wafers must not break apart.

The finished wafers are exposed to gaseous doping materials. This produces the
p - and n - layers described earlier. A transparent anti - reflection layer of silicon nitride
less than a millionth of a millimetre thick gives the silicon solar cell its typical blue
colour. This layer reduces the reflection loss of the silver - grey silicon on the top
side of the solar cell. The darker the cell appears, the less light the cell is reflecting
(Figure 5.5 ).

The front and back contacts are then applied using screen printing. To reduce the
losses to the opaque front contacts, some manufacturers conceal them under the
surface or try to move them so that they are also on the back of a cell. Although

5 Photovoltaics – Energy from Sand

94

this increases the efficiency of a cell, it is also a more complicated and expensive
way to manufacture cells. The finished cells are then finally tested and sorted accord-
ing to performance class for further processing into photovoltaic modules.

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