Dawn may have finally broken for the photovoltaics industry. Design breakthroughs, government initiatives and the rising price of fossil fuels are spurring demand for products that harness the sun’s energy. Across the country, promising new companies are racing to open manufacturing facilities to take advantage of this emerging market.
Ascent Solar Technologies Inc. is a case in point. In March, the company opened its new headquarters in Thornton, CO. Expected to hire some 200 people during the next two years, the facility was built to launch full-scale production of thin-film photovoltaic modules.
Ascent Solar was formed in October 2005 by ITN Energy Systems, a technology incubator that has applied more than $60 million to research and development in photovoltaics over the past 15 years. Unlike conven-tional solar panels, which consist of silicon solar cells sealed under large, rigid glass panels, Ascent Solar’s thin-film modules are lightweight and flexible. With an efficiency of 9.5 percent, the modules can power spacecraft, consumer electronics, and residential and commercial buildings.
The company began producing the modules in late 2007 at its original plant in Littleton, CO. “The most chal-lenging thing for us was going from the R&D lab to pilot production,” says Brian Blackman, investor rela-tions manager for Ascent Solar. “The equipment we’re installing for full-scale production is identical to the equipment we developed for pilot production. It has taken a lot of time and work to debug pilot production, but that will save time when we’re ramping up the new line.”
To get its new headquarters, Ascent purchased an existing 120,000 square foot structure for $5.35 million. It then spent $10 million on renovations, adding 20,000 square feet. It spent another $110 million on capital equipment. “We upgraded the whole building-everything from the power cables to the water lines,” says Blackman.
At peak capacity, the new facility will produce enough solar panels in one year to generate 30 megawatts of electricity. In contrast, the company’s pilot line can only produce enough solar panels annually to generate 1.5 megawatts.
The process of making Ascent’s photovoltaic modules begins with a roll of high-temperature polyimide film, approximately 330 centimeters wide and 150 meters long. The film passes through a series of deposition steps in a roll-to-roll process.
Most solar modules are made up of dozens of individual, interconnected photovoltaic cells. Ascent Solar’s modules are monolithically integrated, meaning the company skips the process of connecting cells. “Essen-tially, our process creates the world’s largest solar cell-it’s the length of the entire substrate,” explains Blackman.
In the first step, a machine applies a thin layer of molybdenum to the plastic. This layer helps collect the elec-trons generated by the photovoltaic material. The next machine applies layers of copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) in a thermal evaporation, vacuum deposition process. A window, or buffer, layer is depos-ited next, followed by a transparent conductive oxide. In the next steps-monolithic integration, screen print-ing and laser scribing-additional conductors are applied to the modules.
After the modules are cut to length, they are laminated with a protective plastic. Finally, the finished modules are tested to see how efficiently they turn light into electricity.
“Because of our highly automated manufacturing processes, we can produce the best product at a very competitive price right here [in the United States],” says Mohan Misra, founder and CEO of Ascent Solar.
Editor’s note: With all the news of bailouts, layoffs and plant closings, it’s all too easy to think every manu-facturer is stuck in the doldrums. In fact, there’s plenty of good news in manufacturing-if you take the time to look. “Moving Forward” is dedicated to new or expanding assembly plants. If you know a facility that’s opening, growing, investing in new equipment, or simply going great guns while everyone else is treading wa-ter, we’d like to hear about it. Send an e-mail to John Sprovieri, editor of ASSEMBLY, at email@example.com, or call 630-694-4012.