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Nanoelectronics June 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

Developments in CIGS Solar Cells

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

The need for governments to move toward a global renewable-energy economy is becoming increasingly apparent. Novel forms of photovoltaics could potentially compete with more established technologies to provide high-efficiency renewable energy.

Description

In May 2016, Portugal announced that it had been able to cover all its electricity requirements using only renewable sources for a period of 107 hours. This feat—which Portugal achieved using a combination of solar, hydro, and wind power—highlights the potential held by renewables and the need for governments to encourage their energy industries to exploit a wide range of emerging technologies in order to meet modern energy demands.

Copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) photovoltaics has the potential to contribute to this blend of renewable energy technologies. In March 2016, scientists at the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) in Germany set a European efficiency record for CIGS solar cells. The group of researchers fabricated a device with an efficiency of 22%—only 0.3% below the current world record. The team attained this figure by optimizing fabrication processes and claims that efficiencies of up to 25% are achievable within the next few years.

Despite not yet finding widespread use in mainstream applications, CIGS photovoltaics shows considerable potential for commercialization. For example, in April 2016, commercial firms Clean Motion and Midsummer, in collaboration with Mistra—the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research—announced the use of CIGS photovoltaics in ultralightweight electric vehicles. The solar panels—integrated into the roof of the vehicle—enhance the mileage of the vehicle by up to 10%.

Implications

These recent developments signal that research into CIGS photovoltaics is making steady advances in terms of the science that underpins the technology, the manufacturing techniques necessary to achieve economies of scale, and potential commercial applications. Such advances are slowly bringing CIGS photovoltaics to the point at which it could begin to compete with other more mature solar technologies and have a more substantial impact on the photovoltaics industry as a whole. However, despite the efficiency gains and introduction of niche commercial applications, any significant market penetration for CIGS photovoltaics will prove exceedingly difficult in the short-term future.

Impacts/Disruptions

Many analysts and researchers once considered CIGS solar cells to be the high-efficiency and low-cost alternative to silicon photovoltaics. However, the technology is not making the commercial progress that it perhaps could have made—venture-capital investment in CIGS photovoltaics firms that no longer exist now exceeds $2 billion. The key barrier to widespread commercialization of this technology is the lack of large-scale fabrication techniques that would make manufacturing industrial volumes of devices a viable commercial pursuit. The coevaporation technique in use at ZSW has the potential to solve this problem, but strong competition from silicon and organic photovoltaics will mean that any impact from CIGS is more likely to arrive in the medium- to long-term future. At present, Solar Frontier is the largest player in the CIGS market and, indeed, the only one with true volume-production capabilities. Consequently, the company is well placed to adopt a market-leading position if the technology ever lives up to its hype.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Energy, photovoltaics, automotive, construction

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Developments in Commercial Data-Storage Technologies

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Memory chips form the basis of all integrated-circuit applications. Advances in high-volume scaling techniques are essential to drive growth across the whole electronics industry.

Description

In April 2016, Samsung announced that it is now mass-producing the first 10-nanometer, 8-gigabit, double-data-rate-4 (DDR4) dynamic-random-access-memory (DRAM) chips. Three key factors enabled Samsung to overcome the significant technical barriers associated with DRAM scaling:

  • The use of argon fluoride immersion lithography—rather than expensive extreme-UV-lithography techniques—aids in making mass production a viable commercial venture.
  • The use of quadruple-patterning lithography serves to enhance resolution and feature density.
  • The use of ultrathin dielectric-layer deposition results in capacitor layers with a uniform thickness of less than 1 nanometer—simultaneously enhancing device performance and reducing feature size.

The data-transfer rate of Samsung's DRAM chips (3,200 megabits per second) is 30% greater than that of the 20-nanometer DDR4 chip that it began mass-producing in 2014. The new modules are also 10% to 20% more energy efficient than their predecessors.

Implications

This development cements Samsung's place as one of the leading players in advanced memory technology. The DRAM chips will see use in a variety of Samsung products in the near future—from 4 Gbyte notebooks to 128 Gbyte enterprise servers. The advance will also accelerate the adoption of DDR4 memory. Despite higher prices—and, therefore, lower margins—this high-bandwidth technology is fast becoming the industry standard for many larger electronics applications such as PCs and information-technology networks. Use in mobile applications would mark a watershed moment for the commercial success of this technology. Indeed, Samsung, naturally, is aware of the commercial impact of mobile applications and has plans to launch "next-generation, 10nm-class mobile DRAM products with high densities to help mobile manufacturers develop even more innovative products that add to the convenience of mobile device users" in the near future.

Impacts/Disruptions

In addition to having the above more immediate implications for the memory-chip industry, this development is also likely to have a longer-term influence on the field of memory technology and the broader integrated-circuit industry. Perhaps most important, the advance could reinvigorate a DRAM market that is suffering from a decline in prices caused by oversupply. Samsung holds a distinct advantage over its rivals (such as Micron) in this respect: The smaller feature size of its products enables it to fabricate devices at lower cost and maintain its profit margin.

Other impacts include delaying the need to implement extreme UV lithographic-fabrication techniques, buying manufacturers time to optimize this high-cost technology before the desire for further scaling necessitates its use for high-volume applications. The advance could also significantly delay the commercialization of emerging memory technologies such as phase-change memory (PCM). PCM—unlike DRAM—does not discharge over time, causing the memory to fade. However, major players in the field tend to seize any available opportunity to extend the lifetime of, and squeeze as much revenue as possible from, existing technologies before going on to introduce next-generation alternatives.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Memory, integrated circuit, electronic device

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: