Seems ATS Automation’s Spheral Solar isn’t the only one using tiny silicon balls in the production of solar PV cells. Kyocera, the world’s second-largest solar cell manufacturer, plans to start shipping a lower-cost solar panel early next year that uses one-fifth the silicon of its traditional panels. “The new panel sharply reduces silicon usage by lining up spherical silicon measuring 1mm or less in diameter on non-silicon substrate,” according to an AsiaPulse report. “The design also eliminates the need to cut the panel to make finished products, sharply lowering material waste.”
At first glance it seems remarkably similar to Spheral Solar’s approach, as described in an article I wrote in July 2004:
“At the heart of Spheral Solar’s technology are tiny silicon balls that look like poppy seeds. The ‘seeds’ come from scrap silicon used by the semiconductor industry, and each one is capable of capturing sunlight and converting it into electricity. A unique property of silicon is that, when melted, tiny spherical balls are naturally formed. Spheral Solar takes those mini-spheres and drops them into holes that have been punched into a flexible aluminium sheet. It then bonds another aluminium sheet to the top and coats the whole strip with a Teflon-protected plastic coasting.”
It’s no secret that solar PV panel manufacturers are looking for ways to not only reduce costs but to also reduce their reliance on silicon. Minimizing waste, and using less silicon that is also lower grade accomplishes the goal quite well for Kyocera and Spheral Solar.
It’s difficult to say whether Kyocera, by using this approach, is good or bad news for Spheral. On the one hand Kyocera is a serious player and competitive threat. However, Spheral Solar has an edge because its product has a head-start, and by entering the market Kyocera may in fact lend credibility to Spheral Solar’s product.
Sprott Securities analyst MacMurray Whale points out that the two have significantly different manufacturing approaches and architectures but are “mighty close” from a superficial level. It’s possible, he says, that Spheral Solar will be motivated to move much faster into the market in light of Kyocera’s plans, but the key will be Spheral Solar’s ability to have its product integrated into building materials.