December 9, 2021

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Science and Tech Spotlight: Alternative Materials for Solar Cells

19 min read
<div>Why This Matters US generation of electricity from solar energy could grow six-fold by 2050. Alternatives to commonly used crystalline silicon cells may reduce material usage, manufacturing capital expenditures, and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these new materials, however, are under development, and more research is needed to better understand their potential. The Technology What is it? Most solar cells (the components that generate electricity from sunlight) are currently produced with crystalline silicon in a process that is complex, expensive, and energy-intensive. Alternative materials—such as cadmium telluride, amorphous silicon, perovskites, and organic (carbon-containing) compounds—applied in thin layers of film may perform better and be easier and cheaper to manufacture. How does it work? As sunlight shines on a solar cell, some of the energy is absorbed to generate electricity either for immediate use or for storage in batteries (see fig. 1). The more readily a given solar cell absorbs light and transforms it into electricity, the higher its efficiency. The electric current generated by sunlight flows through wires that connect the front and back contacts of the solar cell. Figure 1. A simplified representation of how a solar cell generates an electric current. Some alternative materials absorb light 10 to 100 times more strongly than crystalline silicon, allowing them to produce electricity using less material. In turn, solar cells made with these materials are typically thinner and weigh less. In addition, these thin film solar cells can be manufactured quickly, reducing cost. How mature is it? The maturity of these alternative materials varies widely, with some currently used to manufacture solar cells and others in the early stages of research and development. For example, cadmium telluride cells and copper indium gallium diselinide cells together account for roughly 10 percent of current solar cells and they are already cost-competitive with crystalline silicon cells. Novel solar cells under development use a variety of materials. Among them is amorphous silicon, which is non-crystalline and can be deposited as a thin film. Perovskites are an emerging class of materials with rapidly increasing efficiencies. Organic materials offer yet another option for thin films. They consist of carbon-containing compounds, either long chains or molecules, tailored to absorb specific wavelengths of light. Researchers are also investigating the use of quantum dots—microscopic particles of compounds such as cadmium telluride, cadmium selenide, indium phosphide, or zinc selenide, that are able to produce electricity from light. Although these diverse materials differ in their chemical composition, they all fall under the category known as thin films because of the extremely thin layer—comparable in thickness to a red blood cell—in which they are applied (see fig. 2). In addition to being easy to produce and relatively inexpensive, these materials can be deposited on a variety of substrates, including flexible plastics in some cases. Figure 2. Current and potential alternative materials for solar cells are applied in extremely thin layers, with emerging materials being the thinnest. In addition to absorbing light, solar cells must convert it to electricity. While promising, commercial thin film solar cells currently average a conversion efficiency in the range of 12 to 15 percent, compared to 15 to 21 percent for crystalline silicon, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study. In addition, they require appropriate sealing materials to protect them from ambient oxygen and moisture. As a result, many alternative solar cell materials are currently under development or limited to specialized applications. Opportunities Reduced land use. Large solar farms can reduce usable farmland and affect previously undisturbed habitats. These new materials could reduce the amount of land needed for solar arrays by increasing efficiency and offering the flexibility to add more solar capacity to existing infrastructure by, for example, embedding solar cells in transparent replacement windows or in the body panels of electric cars. Lower greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation using solar cells reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil-fuel combustion. In addition, the use of alternative solar cell materials may release fewer greenhouse gases across their life cycles compared to crystalline silicon. Reduced transmission and distribution-based energy loss. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 5 percent of the electricity transmitted and distributed is lost, partially because electricity production often occurs far from customer sites. Novel solar cells based on alternative materials and deployed close to the customer could reduce the need to transmit and distribute electricity over long distances, thereby reducing loss. Improved resilience. Producing and storing electricity locally may help communities better prepare for power outages and restore power more quickly during and after natural disasters or other unforeseen events by designing electricity generating systems to operate even when disconnected from distant electricity producers. Lower manufacturing cost. Production of solar cells using alternative materials relies on fewer and easier steps than the production of crystalline silicon devices. This could decrease manufacturing costs, depending on the material used. Challenges Unknown installation cost. Solar cells are just one element of the overall cost of solar generation. In 2014, solar cells accounted for one third of the total installation cost for utility-scale systems and one fifth of the total installation cost for residential systems, according to an MIT study. However, costs for emerging materials are not known at this time. Material scarcity. Some alternative materials for solar cells use scarce or critical materials. For example, tellurium is typically a byproduct of copper refining, which limits its market availability. Tellurium’s low concentration in the earth’s crust precludes mining it as a primary product at today’s price. Toxicity. Existing solar cells and those under development may contain toxic materials that can be harmful when ingested or absorbed. End of life disposal. The current regulatory scheme for managing the end of life of solar cell modules is complex and varies by jurisdiction. Policy Context and Questions As alternative materials for solar cells continue to evolve and mature, some key questions that policymakers could consider include: What steps could help encourage further development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar cell materials? What analyses of incentives and barriers can determine whether government stimulus may be needed for private sector investment in solar cell materials and what are the trade-offs of such a stimulus? What actions could help ensure sufficient understanding of the human health and environmental impacts of various solar cell materials across the full lifecycle? For more information, contact Karen Howard at 202-512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.</div>

Why This Matters

US generation of electricity from solar energy could grow six-fold by 2050. Alternatives to commonly used crystalline silicon cells may reduce material usage, manufacturing capital expenditures, and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these new materials, however, are under development, and more research is needed to better understand their potential.

The Technology

What is it? Most solar cells (the components that generate electricity from sunlight) are currently produced with crystalline silicon in a process that is complex, expensive, and energy-intensive. Alternative materials—such as cadmium telluride, amorphous silicon, perovskites, and organic (carbon-containing) compounds—applied in thin layers of film may perform better and be easier and cheaper to manufacture.

How does it work? As sunlight shines on a solar cell, some of the energy is absorbed to generate electricity either for immediate use or for storage in batteries (see fig. 1). The more readily a given solar cell absorbs light and transforms it into electricity, the higher its efficiency. The electric current generated by sunlight flows through wires that connect the front and back contacts of the solar cell.

Figure 1. A simplified representation of how a solar cell generates an electric current.

Some alternative materials absorb light 10 to 100 times more strongly than crystalline silicon, allowing them to produce electricity using less material. In turn, solar cells made with these materials are typically thinner and weigh less. In addition, these thin film solar cells can be manufactured quickly, reducing cost.

How mature is it? The maturity of these alternative materials varies widely, with some currently used to manufacture solar cells and others in the early stages of research and development. For example, cadmium telluride cells and copper indium gallium diselinide cells together account for roughly 10 percent of current solar cells and they are already cost-competitive with crystalline silicon cells.

Novel solar cells under development use a variety of materials. Among them is amorphous silicon, which is non-crystalline and can be deposited as a thin film. Perovskites are an emerging class of materials with rapidly increasing efficiencies. Organic materials offer yet another option for thin films. They consist of carbon-containing compounds, either long chains or molecules, tailored to absorb specific wavelengths of light. Researchers are also investigating the use of quantum dots—microscopic particles of compounds such as cadmium telluride, cadmium selenide, indium phosphide, or zinc selenide, that are able to produce electricity from light.

Although these diverse materials differ in their chemical composition, they all fall under the category known as thin films because of the extremely thin layer—comparable in thickness to a red blood cell—in which they are applied (see fig. 2). In addition to being easy to produce and relatively inexpensive, these materials can be deposited on a variety of substrates, including flexible plastics in some cases.

Figure 2. Current and potential alternative materials for solar cells are applied in extremely thin layers, with emerging materials being the thinnest.

In addition to absorbing light, solar cells must convert it to electricity. While promising, commercial thin film solar cells currently average a conversion efficiency in the range of 12 to 15 percent, compared to 15 to 21 percent for crystalline silicon, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study. In addition, they require appropriate sealing materials to protect them from ambient oxygen and moisture. As a result, many alternative solar cell materials are currently under development or limited to specialized applications.

Opportunities

  • Reduced land use. Large solar farms can reduce usable farmland and affect previously undisturbed habitats. These new materials could reduce the amount of land needed for solar arrays by increasing efficiency and offering the flexibility to add more solar capacity to existing infrastructure by, for example, embedding solar cells in transparent replacement windows or in the body panels of electric cars.
  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation using solar cells reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil-fuel combustion. In addition, the use of alternative solar cell materials may release fewer greenhouse gases across their life cycles compared to crystalline silicon.
  • Reduced transmission and distribution-based energy loss. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 5 percent of the electricity transmitted and distributed is lost, partially because electricity production often occurs far from customer sites. Novel solar cells based on alternative materials and deployed close to the customer could reduce the need to transmit and distribute electricity over long distances, thereby reducing loss.
  • Improved resilience. Producing and storing electricity locally may help communities better prepare for power outages and restore power more quickly during and after natural disasters or other unforeseen events by designing electricity generating systems to operate even when disconnected from distant electricity producers.
  • Lower manufacturing cost. Production of solar cells using alternative materials relies on fewer and easier steps than the production of crystalline silicon devices. This could decrease manufacturing costs, depending on the material used.

Challenges

  • Unknown installation cost. Solar cells are just one element of the overall cost of solar generation. In 2014, solar cells accounted for one third of the total installation cost for utility-scale systems and one fifth of the total installation cost for residential systems, according to an MIT study. However, costs for emerging materials are not known at this time.
  • Material scarcity. Some alternative materials for solar cells use scarce or critical materials. For example, tellurium is typically a byproduct of copper refining, which limits its market availability. Tellurium’s low concentration in the earth’s crust precludes mining it as a primary product at today’s price.
  • Toxicity. Existing solar cells and those under development may contain toxic materials that can be harmful when ingested or absorbed.
  • End of life disposal. The current regulatory scheme for managing the end of life of solar cell modules is complex and varies by jurisdiction.

Policy Context and Questions

As alternative materials for solar cells continue to evolve and mature, some key questions that policymakers could consider include:

  • What steps could help encourage further development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar cell materials?
  • What analyses of incentives and barriers can determine whether government stimulus may be needed for private sector investment in solar cell materials and what are the trade-offs of such a stimulus?
  • What actions could help ensure sufficient understanding of the human health and environmental impacts of various solar cell materials across the full lifecycle?

For more information, contact Karen Howard at 202-512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.

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Air Force officials, however, told us they developed formal critical asset identification guidance based on DOD's draft critical asset identification manual. According to military service and combatant command officials, DOD's draft and nonbinding guidance contained unclear definitions of asset tiers, Task Critical Assets, and other key terms, such as "mission essential tasks." DOD has taken some actions toward promoting coordination among the combatant commands, military services, and Joint Staff in compiling DOD's Tier 1 Task Critical Asset list. For example, in August 2005, DOD issued DOD Directive 3020.40, which calls for coordination among the Joint Staff, combatant commands, military services, and other defense agencies for the purpose of identifying and assessing critical assets needed to implement DOD missions. However, DOD has not yet developed formal coordination responsibilities and an effective coordination mechanism within DCIP, including a forum for coordination between the military services and combatant commands when identifying critical assets. Combatant command and military service officials told us that, in considering which assets to submit to DOD's Tier 1 Task Critical Asset list, they coordinate only minimally with each other when determining which assets are critical to combatant command missions. Based on our analysis of the October 2008 manual and discussions with DCIP officials, we found that the Joint Staff, combatant commands, military services, and other DOD agencies still lack clearly defined coordination responsibilities and a mechanism for effective coordination within DCIP. As a result, the communication and coordination efforts among these key DCIP stakeholders when considering assets to nominate as Tier 1 Task Critical Assets have been insufficient and inconsistent. While DOD has developed a strategy and comprehensive management plan for DCIP, it has not fully developed some DCIP program management elements for identifying Tier 1 Task Critical Assets, which could enhance the effectiveness of the program. DOD's formal critical asset identification process manual issued in 2008 lacks some key elements necessary for sound program management, including clearly defined schedules and milestones for meeting performance goals and a formal feedback process. According to our work on sound management practices, comprehensive program schedules and formal communication strategies assist agencies in effectively implementing programs by providing relevant stakeholders with timelines to follow, performance milestones to meet, and shared expectations to guide their efforts. Because DOD lacks a formal process for submitting critical assets, including milestones and formal feedback from ASD(HD&ASA) or the Joint Staff on meeting program goals, the combatant commands and military services are limited in their ability to effectively select, compile, and validate their final nominations to DOD's Tier 1 Task Critical Asset list.
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    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Department of Defense (DOD) is early in the environmental restoration process at or near the 687 installations with a known or suspected release of certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—heat-resistant chemicals found in certain firefighting foams that can contaminate drinking water (see fig.). DOD Installations in the Environmental Restoration Process with a Known or Suspected PFAS Release, as of Fiscal Year 2020 aAccording to DOD officials, in fiscal year 2021 the Air Force changed its definition for when this phase is considered complete, resulting in a lower number of DOD installations (129 installations) that had completed this phase as of March 2021. DOD has taken actions (e.g., providing bottled water, installing water treatment systems) to address PFAS in drinking water at or near its installations when PFAS amounts exceeded federal health advisory levels. DOD generally has not taken actions to address PFAS in drinking water where PFAS amounts were below the federal advisory levels, but above state PFAS standards. DOD estimates that its future PFAS investigation and cleanup costs will total more than $2.1 billion beginning in fiscal year 2021, which is in addition to $1.1 billion in actual PFAS costs incurred through fiscal year 2020. These costs will likely increase significantly, because DOD is still in the early phases of its PFAS investigation. DOD officials also cited regulatory uncertainty at the federal and state levels as a significant challenge in estimating PFAS environmental restoration costs. However, DOD has not reported future PFAS cost estimates, or the scope and limitations of those estimates, in its annual environmental reports to Congress. By reporting this information to Congress, DOD would ensure that Congress has increased visibility into the significant costs and efforts associated with PFAS investigation and cleanup at or near military installations. As of March 2021, DOD had identified six potential PFAS-free foam candidates; however, PFAS-free foams have been unable to fully meet DOD's current performance requirements. By law, DOD must ensure that a PFAS-free firefighting alternative is available for use at its installations by October 2023. DOD is funding research to address challenges associated with identifying PFAS-free alternatives. DOD plans to continue using PFAS-containing foam aboard ships at sea—as allowed for by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020—until a PFAS-free alternative can meet existing requirements. Why GAO Did This Study DOD has long used PFAS-containing firefighting foam to extinguish fires quickly and keep them from reigniting. PFAS can migrate into the environment (e.g., drinking water) and may have adverse effects on human health. The federal government has issued two nonenforceable advisories but has not yet regulated PFAS in drinking water; some states have adopted PFAS regulations. Conference Report 116-333, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review DOD's response to PFAS contamination. This report (1) describes DOD's progress in the investigation and cleanup of PFAS at its installations, and DOD's actions to address PFAS in drinking water; (2) describes DOD's actual and estimated costs for PFAS investigation and cleanup, and evaluates the extent to which DOD has reported those figures to Congress; and (3) describes DOD's progress in identifying PFAS-free firefighting alternatives. GAO analyzed DOD data on PFAS cleanup, costs (actual and estimated obligations), and foam alternatives; evaluated DOD's PFAS cost reporting against policy; and interviewed officials from DOD and selected installations and state environmental agencies.
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  • Veterans’ Disability Benefits: Processing of Claims Continues to Present Challenges
    In U.S GAO News
    The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, House Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked GAO to discuss its recent work related to the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) disability claims and appeals processing. GAO has reported and testified on this subject on numerous occasions. GAO's work has addressed VA's efforts to improve the timeliness of decisions on claims and appeals and VA's efforts to reduce backlogs.VA continues to face challenges in improving service delivery to veterans, specifically speeding up the process of adjudication and appeal, and reducing the existing backlog of claims. For example, as of the end of fiscal year 2006, rating-related compensation claims were pending an average of 127 days, 16 days more than at the end of fiscal year 2003. During the same period, the inventory of rating-related claims grew by almost half, in part because of increased filing of claims, including those filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Meanwhile, appeals resolution remains a lengthy process, taking an average of 657 days in fiscal year 2006. However, several factors may limit VA's ability to make and sustain significant improvements in its claims-processing performance, including the potential impacts of laws and court decisions, continued increases in the number and complexity of claims being filed, and difficulties in obtaining the evidence needed to decide claims in a timely manner, such as military service records. VA is taking steps to address these problems. For example, the President's fiscal year 2008 budget requests an increase of over 450 full-time equivalent employees to process compensation claims. VA is also working to improve appeals timeliness by reducing appeals remanded for further work. While VA is taking actions to address its claims-processing challenges, opportunities for significant performance improvement may lie in more fundamental reform of VA's disability compensation program. This could include reexamining program design such as updating the disability criteria to reflect the current state of science, medicine, technology, and labor market conditions. It could also include examining the structure and division of labor among field offices.
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