Green upgrade for the solar industry: Fraunhofer spin-off PV2plus solves urgent raw material problem of the solar industry

Solar power is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy sources worldwide. But the growing demand for the critical resource silver for module production could become the bottleneck of green energy. Starting in fall 2021, the Fraunhofer spin-off project PV2plus is driving an innovation that replaces scarce and environmentally critical materials while significantly reducing manufacturing costs as part of an EXIST research transfer.

Scarce resource silver as bottleneck of future PV expansion

Most of today's common manufacturing processes for solar modules use silver contacts. Worldwide, around 10 percent of annual silver production already goes into manufacturing of contacts for solar modules. Today, silver contacts account for around one-tenth of manufacturing costs - with an increasing upward trend. Should photovoltaics be further expanded to the extent planned, a serious cost trap for solar energy is on the horizon, because cheap solar power will have to be bought with the expensive and finite resource of silver. At today's annualdemand, known silver deposits will only last for about 20 years - the solar boom, like the expansion of 5G technology and electromobility, is continuing to fuel demand and make one of its key raw materials more expensive. With regard to this critical scenario for the solar industry, the Fraunhofer spin-off project PV2plus has developed a patented solution that could not only break the dependence on expensive resources, but also improve the ecological footprint in the production of solar cells.

PV2plus silver-free solution holds out the prospect of huge cost benefits for solar cell manufacturers - while also having a positive impact on the environment.

The PV2plus team is working on a process, based on Fraunhofer technology, to substitute copper for the critical silver in the production of modules made with the pioneering high-efficiency silicon heterojunction technology. The global demand for copper for the contacts of solar cells could easily be covered by the copper already recycled in Germany today alone. Unlike the screen printing of silver pastes commonly used today, the so-called NOBLE process from PV2plus does not cause any emissions of solvents or silver particle dusts that are harmful to health and the environment due to the galvanic application of the contacts. In addition, the use of copper instead of silver in itself has a 10 to 100 times more favorable eco-balance in decisive factors. The renewed strength of photovoltaic production in Germany could also be given a new boost by the innovation from Breisgau, because the previously favorable competition from the Far East works with conventional processes and materials. For solar cell manufacturers as potential customers, the expected advantages are enormous - not least because the performance of the galvanic copper contacts is significantly higher than that of printed silver contacts.

 

Founders’ spirit in research - and research spirit in founding

The PV2plus team could be seen as personified proof that research and entrepreneurship can complement and promote each other almost symbiotically. Doctoral student Thibaud Hatt and long-time department head Dr. Markus Glatthaar have been working for several years with other colleagues at Fraunhofer ISE on alternatives for the critical silver contacts in photovoltaic production. Their parent institute is not only considered the largest and most renowned solar research institute in Europe, but also one of the most start-up-friendly research institutes - it has already produced several extremely successful spin-offs. Researchers at ISE work comparatively close to start-ups in a transfer-friendly organizational culture. 

Dr. Leonard Tutsch, who did his PhD on innovative contact layers for SHJ solar cells, and Dr. Katharina Braig complete the PV2plus team. Dr. Markus Glatthaar has already worked with the latter on earlier start-up projects; she complements the team with external corporate know-how. Having already received several awards (insert link to Sciences4Life and BDE competition), and having been able to further develop its ideas with the support of the AHEAD program of the Fraunhofer Competence Center Entrepreneurship, the energy accelerator AXEL (LINK) and the Leistungszentrum Nachhaltigkeit Freiburg, the team now plans to further optimize its product as part of an EXIST research transfer starting in September. The aim is to be able to offer solar cell manufacturers support in implementing the NOBLE process in production and licensing the corresponding IP in the next few years. The team is supported by experienced mentors, including Professor Stefan Glunz, Professor of Photovoltaic Energy Conversion at the University of Freiburg and Dr. Christian Peter, Managing Director of Solarlab Aiko.

 

You can find more info about the PV2plus team on LinkedIn and in the article published in TaiyangNews in August.

 

Information and background on the spin-offs of Fraunhofer ISE can be found here.

 

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