Solar power is growing quickly, but it still makes up only around 3% of the world’s electricity production—and to address climate change, that number may need to grow to 60% or more. The supply chain is one of the factors limiting growth: Bottlenecks in the production of key components are slowing down production. But in a lab in Oakland, California, a startup is working on a redesigned solar cell that could cut the cost of manufacturing in half—and make it easier to make solar cells in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
“We thought, let’s see if there’s another way to reimagine the way we manufacture,” says David Berney Needleman, CEO of the startup, called Leap Photovoltaic. The company’s design eliminates silicon wafers, a component used in almost all solar cells, which are expensive to produce, energy intensive, and create waste. Instead of using wafers, the process goes straight from silicon to finished solar cells, which can then be made into solar panels.
Right now, because it’s also very expensive to build a factory to make silicon wafers, only a handful of manufacturers exist. A few solar panel manufacturers make their own wafers in-house. Others have to import wafers from a couple of major companies. “You have this very limited supply chain that you can pull from, and that’s complicated, because it’s just prone to disruption,” Needleman says. “It’s prone to not knowing if you’re going to be able to get material and components that you need, when you’re going to get it, and how much it’s going to cost—all the things that you think about being core to building a business are very shadowy in the solar industry right now.”
Over the past year alone, he says, the price of silicon jumped from $5 to $10 per kilogram to $30 per kilogram. Reports about forced labor upstream in the supply chain for polysilicon also led to a ban on imports in the U.S., though it’s difficult to track the supply chain and prove which shipments were linked to forced labor. Environmental performance of the existing factories is also opaque. Companies that buy silicon wafers want more options, but don’t have them now, Needleman says.
Needleman started thinking about alternatives in solar manufacturing as a grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, while working with another startup that was innovating on solar production, he realized that its process could be adapted to work with silicon, making it more efficient. That company, called Energy Everywhere, eventually moved in a different direction, to making microgrids. But Needleman decided to buy its IP and develop it at a startup of his own, funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission.
He compares the manufacturing process to 3D printing: In a similar way to how a 3D printer uses a powder to print out layers of material, the new solar cells are “printed” from a single layer of powdered silicon attached to a substrate. The design uses a tenth of the silicon that would be used in a typical solar cell, takes 70% less energy to produce, and 90% less water. The process can also use off-the-shelf manufacturing equipment, making it easier and less expensive to scale up new production facilities.
Leap Photovoltaic is at an early stage—it just launched in 2020—but the team is working with Lawrence National Laboratory and the University of California, San Diego, to test components of the design, with plans to begin pilot production for early customers in 2023, and scale up to mass manufacturing by 2024, an aggressive timeline that Needleman believes is feasible. The approach can make global manufacturing of solar cells competitive; the company plans to begin in the U.S., where manufacturers spent half a billion dollars on imported solar cells last year.
Leap Photovoltaic was a finalist in the Cleantech Open competition, which asks companies to use a simple tool to estimate their potential impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. Because the technology could help the solar industry scale up much more quickly, the potential could be huge: The company estimated that it could help save more than 100 gigatons of emissions by the middle of the century.