Nines Photovoltaics is an Irish company, founded in 2010, which aims to improve the manufacturing process for solar cells with a new sustainable and scalable dry etching technology. The Dublin-based firm recently received a European Commission Framework Programme 7 funding award of €1.2 million to continue its development of this technology, which requires significantly smaller quantities of water than prevailing production methods for solar cells.
Nines Photvoltaics was founded in 2010 as an offshoot of semiconductor manufacturer Nines Engineering. Nines’ founder and CEO Edward Duffy explains that the overlap in technology between semiconductor and solar cell production, combined with a “very attractive” growing market for solar energy led him down the photovoltaic route.
“I always wanted to do something in the solar space, particularly because of the convergence between the semiconductor manufacturing and the solar sell manufacturing processes.
“I felt that there was an opportunity to look at the manufacturing technologies and maybe try and add value in that space because a lot of the processing technologies that are used are quite mature and not really specifically designed for solar cell manufacturing, but just adopted from semiconductor manufacturing.”
Nines’ dry etching technology can process silicon wafers at atmospheric pressure with no requirement for the vacuum chambers which are typically used in semiconductor manufacturing for dry etching.
“It’s much cheaper technology to purchase, in the first place, and to run. It will deliver much higher throughput so it’s specifically designed for solar cell manufacturing where you will need to be running wafers at 4,000 or 5,000 wafers per hour as opposed to a semiconductor plant which can get away with maybe 10 or 15 wafers per hour.”
Nines have collaborated with the Fraunhofer ISE institute, “probably the best known and the leaders in their field”, for the purposes of trialling their technology in their pilot production plant in Freiburg, Germany.
Together with the Fraunhofer Institute and, “a consortium together of other SME’s that have kind of bolt-ons or add-ons to machines that are used in this space”, Nines made its successful application for the FP7 funding for a pilot programme which will commence in the Autumn.
“What it will allow us to do, is it will allow us to put our first prototype machine or pilot production machine into a working pilot production plant and actually produce solar cells, so that’s really very important for us.”
Despite the likelihood of peak oil supply having been reached, and the massive potential of solar energy, it accounts for only a tiny proportion of energy supply internationally, but with there being, “six or seven hundred times more [energy] than we’re ever going to need there”, Edward is confident that solar cell production is a growth area, and the sustainability offered by Nines’ manufacturing process will place it at the forefront of the photovoltaics space.
“One of the big things that has been identified when we talk to our customers is the consumption of water is a major part of it [the manufacturing process], and it’s not just the cost, it’s the amount of water and the facilities that need to be built and implemented in terms of infrastructure in a factory to bring the water to the machines and to the solar cells.
“Really, it’s a gate to the way these factories can scale, and be sustainable in the future, so it’s not just the cost, per se, of one technology versus the other, it’s also the sustainability and being able to scale production.
“To make a proper penetration into the energy market, you really need to look at innovation in the manufacturing space, so at the moment we estimate that our technology is going to be a little bit cheaper than the current technology, but when it comes to scale, it has much more potential for scale, and as you scale of course, you will be able to get much further cost reductions.”
Nines Photovoltaics is currently engaged in a private fundraising round, seeking a further €2 million, which, Edward hopes, will allow it “to execute on this FP7 programme”.