Colorado State University's method for manufacturing low-cost, high-efficiency solar panels is nearing mass production. AVA Solar Inc. will start production by the end of next year on the technology developed by mechanical engineering Professor W.S. Sampath at Colorado State. The new 200-megawatt factory is expected to employ up to 500 people. Based on the average household usage, 200 megawatts will power 40,000 U.S. homes.

Produced at less than $1 per watt, the panels will dramatically reduce the cost of generating solar electricity and could power homes and businesses around the globe with clean energy for roughly the same cost as traditionally generated electricity.

Sampath has developed a continuous, automated manufacturing process for solar panels using glass coating with a cadmium telluride thin film instead of the standard high-cost crystalline silicon. Because the process produces high efficiency devices (ranging from 11% to 13%) at a very high rate and yield, it can be done much more cheaply than with existing technologies. The cost to the consumer could be as low as $2 per watt, about half the current cost of solar panels. In addition, this solar technology need not be tied to a grid, so it can be affordably installed and operated in nearly any location.

The process is a low waste process with less than 2% of the materials used in production needing to be recycled. It also makes better use of raw materials since the process converts solar energy into electricity more efficiently. Cadmium telluride solar panels require 100 times less semiconductor material than high-cost crystalline silicon panels.

"This technology offers a significant improvement in capital and labor productivity and overall manufacturing efficiency," said Sampath, director of Colorado State's Materials Engineering Laboratory.

Sampath has spent the past 16 years perfecting the technology. In that time, annual global sales of photovoltaic technology have grown to approximately 2 gigawatts or two billion watts -- roughly a $6 billion industry. Demand has increased nearly 40% a year for each of the past five years -- a trend that analysts and industry experts expect to continue.

By 2010, solar cell manufacturing is expected to be a $25 billion-plus industry.


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