Sun Rise: Solvay and its Solar Energy ambitions

Solar energy is an infinitely available, carbon-free energy. Roughly 20 square surfaces of 160 km x 160 km covered with solar panels could theoretically power the entire world in 2030 with zero carbon emission! Having already made major contributions to Solar Impulse, the world’s only solar-powered aircraft, how could Solvay further the advancement of this alternative energy?

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SIA16-RGThere has been a major evolution in the photovoltaic (PV) industry in recent years,” explains Robert Gresser, Director of the Sustainable Energy Platform within the Advanced Innovation Office of Solvay (pictured). “Before, companies manufactured solar panels designed to suit all purposes. And because they were all the same, it quickly became a commodity with producers competing to make the cheapest modules. After studying the effectiveness of solar energy capture in locations as diverse as Shanghai, Berlin or the Mojave Desert, however, major differences were recorded. For example, sand in the atmosphere can degrade the panel, much like how sand can stick to a window and minimize the amount of light able to pass through it. In Germany, on the other hand, the climate is humid, so the panels there needed to accommodate humidity. Today the market is evolving to compensate for these differences, producing different kinds of solar panels tailored to specific segments, geographies and climates.” 

Solvay and solar today

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Solvay is presently on the PV market with high performance resins from Specialty Polymers, namely Solef® PVDF for the backsheet and Halar® ECTFE for the frontsheet of solar panels. 

Chemicals and formulations developed by GBUs Special Chem and Novecare are used for the manufacturing process of solar panels. Thanks to Solvay’s wide breadth of technologies, however, the Group could have an even stronger ambition in new materials and solutions for photovoltaics.    
Research and Innovation (R&I) has launched a program to develop new solutions that would improve the cost effectiveness and lifetime of solar panels. The program leverages Solvay technologies in selected areas such as light management, with solutions improving the pathway of photons* to the semiconductor material where it is transformed into electricity.

*The smallest unit of light or other electromagnetic energy

Advanced inorganic materials as Downconverters

Solar panels must capture light from the sun. Solar light has different wavelengths - i.e. visual light, ultraviolet (UV) and infrared. The efficacy of current solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity varies with the wavelength, with the visual light spectrum mostly being the most effective. 

Materials developed in the Rare Earths business activity - now within the newly launched GBU Special Chem - are today able to transform UV rays into visible light, which can be absorbed by the cell and turned into electricity. As a result, solar panels can produce 5-7% more energy, which is significant progress. R&I is currently transferring this project to GBU Special Chem for development and commercialization. 

Smart Films

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Glass is heavy, which is a problem as many solar panels are to be installed on the roofs of houses or industrial plants, not originally designed to support such an overweight. With today’s technology, however, it is possible to replace the 2 to 4mm thick glass by 50µm thin fluorinated  films (Halar® ECTFE) produced by the GBU Specialty Polymers, reducing dramatically (more than a half) the module global weight. 

Removing glass, however, causes UV protection issues. “We’ve therefore taken the anti-UV nanomaterials from Special Chem and are integrating them into Specialty Polymers’ films to create new functional frontsheet films. A further step on which R&I is  working is to incorporate the Downconverter material from Special Chem into these films. Our target is to get functional films that are not only lighter and more flexible than glass, but also more performant,” explains Robert Gresser. 

Smart Coatings

For existing glass solar panels, R&I is developing smart coatings that are durable, anti-reflection, anti-soil or anti-scratch, and/or harvest 5% more energy with Downconverters in the coating. 

This is still being worked on within Group R&I, but could be potentially interesting for GBUs such as Novecare or Solvay Energy Services,” says Robert

A new dawn

In recent years, much has been reported about the deterioration of the PV market, but these reports don’t faze Robert and his R&I colleagues. 
PV is like the automotive market, adds Robert Gresser. In recent years there has been industry consolidation, but the long-term outlook is growth. Overcapacity in solar panel production is declining with manufacturers focusing not on producing more, but increasing value. New materials are key to increase the cost effectiveness. The PV industry is changing. And we’ll be right there to capture its upswing.