New generation of crucibles increases power production for solar cells
Steuler Solar GmbH has developed and patented a new generation of crucibles (moulded containers) for wafer production in the solar power industry. The use of new ceramics means cleaner solar cells and increased power production. The newly developed crucibles can also be used repeatedly, resulting in reduced production costs for the wafer industry.
Steuler Solar GmbH is part of the German Steuler Group, which turns over 450 million EURO a year and has more than 2000 employees. The company is 70 % owned by the Steuler Group and 30 % owned by Kera Holding, which is owned by Rune Roligheten, the CEO of Steuler Solar Technology AS. The company is based in Herøya Industripark, where four employees have just finished developing the new technology.
Steuler Solar Technology uses a high-tech ceramic made of silicon nitride as part of their production. Manufacturing large crucibles in this material is challenging, and the company has developed its own furnaces for production. The technology is protected by worldwide patents.
“We began developing the new crucibles in Germany five years ago, but the development work was moved to Porsgrunn and completed here,” explains Roligheten. “We have finished the pilot production in our premises in the industrial park, and now the crucibles will be tested by customers in China. If this is successful, we will be ready to start full-scale industrial production. It will require around 150 employees to produce the crucibles and furnaces for the crystallisation process.
“What needs to be done to set up the factory in Porsgrunn?”
“The decision will be made after a complete risk and cost assessment,” says Roligheten. “After REC the premises are now empty, so there is an opportunity to set up production here. But Germany and China could be alternative locations, although there are several conditions that favour this country. As long as we have a completely unique technology, then we can be competitive in Norway. Power is cheap here, and we can use Norwegian raw materials from Elkem Bremanger for production. It’s also easier to protect our technology with production in Norway.”
If the market and customers are ready after the tests, Steuler Solar Technology could be ready to make a decision by the end of the year.
Solar cells are made by melting and crystallising silicon in a crucible into an ingot. The ingot is thinly sliced into wafers, which are then put together to make solar panels.
“Until now crucibles were made from traditional, fire resistant materials. The challenge was always that the crucibles could only be used once, and that the fire-resistant materials produced pollution from the ingot,” explains Roligheten. “Our technology solves both these problems.”
The founder is clear that Steuler Solar does not sell crucibles, but kilowatt-hours. The company’s technology ensures the ingots can be produced without oxygen pollution. The cleaner production means the effect is increased between 5 and 10 %.
“It is definitely the increased effect that is the most important point about our new technology. And we are talking about big figures. If we build a factory that produces 50 000 crucibles per year, with a 5 % increased effect of the solar cells produced in these crucibles, it would mean an increased production of 12 500 TWh. As the production phases out the use of coal, it means our technology would contribute towards a reduction of 12.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year. This is the same number of emissions from 2.9 million cars, so it is a very environment friendly technology we are providing," says Roligheten.
The value of the increased power production is approx. NOK 8 billion, and the value of reduced CO2 emissions for 12.5 million tonnes is approx. NOK 7 billion.
In addition to increased cleanliness and capacity, Steuler Solar Technology’s new technology means the crucibles can be used several times over. The new crucibles can be filled with liquid smelt, which changes the crystallisation process from being a batch process to a continuous production process. The result is major savings in solar cell production.
90 % of wafer production takes place in China, so this is Steuler Solar Technology's market. In the autumn the company will set up a local office in Shanghai to get closer to this market.