Breakthrough Monitoring Technology Reduces Time and Expense in Solar Cell Manufacturing Process

Thin-film deposition process control sensor provides ability to continuously monitor and control the CIGS solar cell manufacturing process at temperatures as high as 500° Celsius.

Image courtesy of Colnatec
The Tempe™ sensor head is designed for thin film coating process control when high evaporation or chamber temperatures are required.

R&D Opportunity

In FY 2011 the U. S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy funded R&D to develop novel, advanced, real-time nondestructive materials characterization tools for use in high-volume manufacturing lines for photovoltaic systems.

Thin film solar cells are one of the most promising and cost effective means of generating electricity from sunlight. However, their manufacture requires the use of precision film thickness process control sensors in order to produce high efficiency and economically viable cells. Current film thickness sensors are not reliable enough to meet these demands, failing after continuous use in a matter of hours as a result of high heat and excessive layer build-up.


Typically, producing highly efficient, low-cost, thin-film photovoltaic (PV) cells requires extremely high temperatures and often the harsh and corrosive elements necessary for a copper, indium gallium selenide (CIGS) deposition.

The ability to monitor and control the CIGS solar cell manufacturing process in furnaces has always been challenging, especially when operating in temperatures as high as 1000° Celsius. DOE SBIR funding was used by Colnatec to demonstrate that at 500 degrees Celsius, a sensor can remain stable and regenerate itself after a thin-film deposition. Standard commercial sensors cannot operate under such extreme conditions; without the ability to monitor processes, waste of expensive materials is virtually guaranteed. In an approach that is conducive to high-temperature settings, Colnatec developed a thin-film deposition process control sensor that is uniquely designed to work within the hazardous CIGS process environment. Despite these extreme temperatures, the sensors can produce accurate measurements of deposition flux for process monitoring and feedback control. Essentially, developing an unlimited, lifetime sensor is the desired end result.]


With sales agents and distributors in every major market (more than 15 countries) and exports to more than 30 countries, this technology is giving manufacturers greater control over the thin-film deposition process. Manufacturers are able to use this technology to access atomic-level operating environments, making it possible to recognize when atoms first begin to stick to a CIGS or other thin-film surface. Overall, this precision accessibility enables manufacturers the power to create more affordable solar energy systems.


Anthony Nardone
Marketing Coordinators

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Program: EERE