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Commercial status of thin-film photovoltaic

devices and materials

Johanna Schmidtke*
Lux Research Inc., 234 Congress Street, Fifth and Sixth Floors, Boston, MA 02110, USA

Abstract: We present a review of commercial thin-film photovoltaic (PV)

technologies and products. After a brief introduction of recent dynamics in
the on-grid PV market, we provide an overview of commercial thin-film
silicon, cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium diselenide, and organic
PV modules including representative efficiencies, deposition processes,
module form factors, and nominal production capacities available for
production today. Finally, we discuss the technical, production, and market
targets of thin-film PV module developers.
2010 Optical Society of America
OCIS codes: (350.6050) Solar energy; (310.6845) Thin film devices and applications.

References and links

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1. Introduction
Driven by government incentives and subsidies, the photovoltaic (PV) industry has
experienced rapid growth in the past decade. The introduction of feed-in-tariff (FiT) schemes
in Germany [1] and Spain [2,3] opened the opportunity for residential, commercial, industrial,
and financial investors to profit from solar installations, and as a result, drove demand for PV
products. To date, the bulk of this demand has been met by crystalline silicon (x-Si) materials
suppliers (including polysilicon, ingot, wafer, cell, and module producers) and has led to the
high-value initial public offerings (IPOs) of firms such as Q-Cells (242 million) in 2005 and
Wacker Chemie (153 million) in 2007. In addition, the multi-billion-dollar PV opportunity
drew the attention of venture capital (VC) and private equity firms, which poured $4.7 billion
into cleantech firms in 2008 in the U.S. alone [4]. In early 2008, market pricing for standard
x-Si modules stood well above $3.00/Wp, while high-purity polysilicon sold for more than
$400/kg [5]. By late 2008, however, the combination of a) the rapid expansion of capacity in
the crystalline silicon value chain from 2006; b) the sudden introduction of a 500 MW limit to
Spains FiT program for PV; and c) the global financial crisis led to an oversupply within the
PV market. As a result, x-Si PV module pricing fell between 40% and 50% from late 2008 to
early 2010, large public firms experienced more than 50% reduction in market capitalization,
and VC investors pulled back from the field [5].
Within this dynamic background, thin-film PV technology developers have worked to
introduce modules to the residential, commercial, and utility on-grid solar energy markets. In
addition, firms have introduced new flexible thin-film PV modules for a range of applications,
including portable PV and building-integrated PV (BIPV) products as well as the more
conventional on-grid markets. Despite advances in efficiency and production cost by the
incumbent x-Si manufacturers over the past decade, some thin-film PV firms have achieved
significant commercial success. This review will survey the commercial status of thin-film PV
technologies on the market today, including thin-film silicon, cadmium telluride, copper
indium gallium diselenide, and organic PV. As a complete survey of all thin-film PV
1developers is too lengthy for the scope of this review, we highlight representative firms for
each technology type to demonstrate the efficiencies, deposition processes, module form
factors, and nominal production capacities of the commercial thin-film PV market.
2. Thin-film silicon (TF-Si) modules
With initial demonstrations stemming back to 1969 [6,7], TF-Si developers have the longest
history of commercial production among thin-film PV technologies on the market today. The
firms offering TF-Si modules to the market have developed a wide range of technical
variations on the commercial scale, including single-junction amorphous silicon (a-Si), dualjunction a-Si/a-Si, tandem-junction microcrystalline silicon-amorphous silicon (commonly
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named micromorph), and triple-junction germanium-doped amorphous silicon (a-Si/aSiGe/a-SiGe). Representative schematics of these structures are shown in Fig. 1. In each
superstrate design, the transparent conducting oxide (TCO) typically aluminum-doped zinc
oxide (ZnO:Al) is deposited by atmospheric-pressure CVD (APCVD), low-pressure CVD
(LPCVD), or RF sputtering either at the module manufacturer or the glass supplier. The active
TF-Si layers are then deposited via plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD),
followed by the deposition of a thin ZnO buffer layer and the backcontact of Al, Ag, or
ZnO:Al. For glass/glass module assembly, the individual cells are defined via laser scribing
[8] and the module is encapsulated using either a polyvinyl butyral (PVB) (typical) or
ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) laminate and a top cover glass.

Fig. 1. Schematics of example commercial thin-film silicon PV module device structures. (a) A
single-junction a-Si PV module with Al back contact (e.g. Applied Materials a-Si turn-key
products [9]) (b) Dual-junction a-Si/a-Si module, (c) Tandem-junction a-Si/c-Si
micromorph PV module with ZnO:Al backcontact and white paste reflector (e.g. Oerlikon
micromorph turn-key products [10]), and (d) Triple-junction a-Si/a-SiGe/a-SiGe PV cell built
on stainless steel foil (e.g. Uni-Solar (Energy Conversion Devices)) [11].

The number of firms producing TF-Si PV modules has grown rapidly since 2005, as early
developers such as Kaneka, Sharp, and United Solar Ovonic (Energy Conversion Devices)
have been joined by customers of Applied Materials, Oerlikon, and Ulvac, each of which
offers a complete turn-key module production system for either single-junction a-Si and/or
micromorph modules. As shown in Table 1, the majority of TF-Si developers serving the
market offer glass/glass module designs and achieve stabilized efficiencies from 6% for
single-junction a-Si up to 9% to 10% for commercial high-performance micromorph modules
or demonstration triple-junction a-SiGe mini-modules. In 2009, while the global announced
TF-Si module capacity reached more than 1,000 MW across all TF-Si technology types at
more than 80 firms, the total TF-Si installations were less than 300 MW, indicating a low
utilization rate of most TF-Si production facilities [12]. Turn-key customers, in particular,

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have struggled to reach profitability due to the cost of materials, low module efficiency, high
capital costs, and limited market for modules. In March 2010, Sunfilm, an Applied Materials
TF-Si equipment customer, filed for insolvency, and in July 2010 Applied Materials
announced the discontinuation of its SunFab fully-integrated production line to new customers
Table 1. Example commercial thin-film silicon PV modules by developer

Bosch Solar Thin

Active layer

Module type

Efficiency (%)
7.0% - 8.0%










Masdar PV









Schott Solar







Flexible, SS foil
Flexible, SS foil






Oerlikon manufacturing system

Applied Materials manufacturing system
Non-commercial, record sub-module with 0.27 cm2 area.

To address these challenges, TF-Si module producers continue to develop more efficient
commercial products while targeting lower materials costs. Key developments include the
broader introduction of triple-junction TF-Si architectures, improved light-trapping in the
TCO, reduced active layer thickness, and nano-crystalline silicon (nc-Si) active layers. Sharp,
which expanded its annual TF-Si production capacity by 160 MW in early 2010 (as part of a
1,000 MW module production facility [23]), produces module efficiencies of 9.9% using a
tandem-junction micromorph architecture [14] and will target commercial production of
triple-junction TF-Si architectures as early as 2011 [24]. Likewise, Kaneka, which introduced
a 9.0% efficient c-Si/a-Si commercial module in December 2009 [18], has demonstrated an
11.7% efficient submodule [22]. In addition, turn-key equipment developer Oerlikon has set
out a roadmap for commercial modules with an efficiency of more than 10% at a module
production cost of $0.70/Wp by the end of 2010, including a reduction in the active layer
thickness [25]. Among flexible module developers, Uni-Solar has pushed research-level
performance higher by demonstrating a triple-junction a-Si/nc-Si/nc-Si sub-module with an
efficiency of 12.5% on stainless steel foil over a 0.27 cm2 area [22].
3. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film modules
Commercially, cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film PV modules have seen the greatest
success among thin-film PV technologies to date. In 2009, commercial CdTe module sales
surpassed 1,000 MW, led singularly by First Solar. Building on the earlier work of Harold
McMaster at Solar Cells Inc. (SCI), First Solar was incorporated in 1999 and today is the
largest PV module producer in the world [26] and achieves the lowest reported module
production costs of $0.76/Wp [27] of any PV module producer. Commercial PV modules use
a standard superstrate structure as shown in Fig. 2. Starting with a TCO-coated glass
(typically fluorine-doped tin oxide), the cadmium sulfide (CdS) and CdTe layers are
sequentially added via a vapor-transport deposition or closed-space sublimation process [28].
The CdTe active layer is then treated at 400 C to 450 C in a CdCl2 atmosphere, after which
a carbon-based paste containing Cu is added and annealed before the final backside Al
electrode is added. Commercial module assembly includes a P1, P2, and P3 laser scribe as
well as encapsulation using an EVA encapsulant and a cover glass. In 2010, standard
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commercial CdTe modules achieve 11.2% conversion efficiency as reported by First Solar

Fig. 2. Schematics of example commercial CdTe module device structures. (a) Glass/glass
CdTe PV module using commercial SnO2:F-coated glass and incorporating an EVA laminate
[28]. (b) CdTe PV module structure incorporating a silicone edge seal with desiccated
polyisobutylene (PIB) inserts (e.g. Abound Solar [29]), and (c) CdTe PV module structure
incorporating the high-performance design reported by Wu that utilizes a Cd2SnO4 TCO layer

While First Solar has dominated the CdTe field, additional companies continue to develop
commercial CdTe modules as shown in Table 2. Abound Solar is actively ramping a 65 MW
commercial production line to produce glass/glass superstrate CdTe modules based on a
closed-space sublimation deposition process, and targets an average module efficiency in June
2010 of 10% [29]. Unlike First Solar, Abound Solar encapsulates modules using a silicone
edge seal with desiccated polyisobutylene (PIB) inserts, as depicted in Fig. 2(b) [29].
Primestar Solar, which is majority-owned by General Electric, is expected to enter production
in 2011 [30] to commercialize the technology originally developed by Wu [31] and then
licensed by the firm. Wu and colleagues modified the CdTe superstrate structure specifically
introducing a Cd2SnO4 TCO, a ZnSnOx buffer layer, and a CdS:O window layer, as shown in
Fig. 2(c) to achieve a record cell efficiency of 16.5%.
Table 2. Example commercial cadmium telluride PV modules by developer

Abound Solar

Module type

Efficiency (%)

65 MW





25 MWb


First Solar



1,416 MW


Primestar Solar





Announced nameplate capacity of facilities as of 1 Jan 2010 unless otherwise indicated; does not necessarily
represent current production levels.
Q-Cells has stated intent to divest its stake in Calyxo by the end of 2010 [34].

While CdTe developers currently achieve the lowest production costs on the market, they
continued development in both efficiency and costs are pursued to remain competitive in the
thin-film PV and overall PV markets. First Solar targets production costs as low as $0.52/Wp
by 2014, of which 18%-25% of the cost improvement will stem from efficiency
improvements [35]. Likewise, Abound Solar targets production costs near $0.65/Wp in 2012

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[29] and has received a U.S. Department of Energy Loan Guarantee to expand its module
production capacity by 840 MW [36].
4. Copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film modules
Copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) developers have garnered significant interest and
financial investment since 2003 and 2004, when firms such as Nanosolar and Miasol began
raising Series A financing. Since then, interest in CIGS-based firms has grown tremendously,
with investments in individual firms, including Heliovolt, Miasol, Nanosolar, SoloPower,
Solyndra, and Sulfurcell Solartechnik, reaching well over $100 million per firm [37]. The
active layers of the CIGS substrate device structures as shown in Fig. 3 including the
sputtered back Mo electrode, a Cu(In,Ga)Se2 layer, a thin buffer layer (typically CdS
deposited by chemical bath deposition [CBD], also ZnS or Zn[O,H,S] by CBD, or sputtered
CdS), and a sputtered TCO front contact (typically ZnO/ZnO:Al or ZnO/ITO) is consistent
across most CIGS developers. However, both the method of CIGS deposition and the final
module assembly vary widely among the producers.

Fig. 3. Schematics of example commercial CIGS module device structures. (a) CIGS module
architecture, including a CdS buffer layer deposited via chemical bath deposition [28] and (b)
A flexible module design, including front contact gridlines of Ag paste and alternative module
laminates, where indicated.

Table 3 summarizes the deposition process, reported efficiencies, module form factor,
efficiency, and announced capacity for representative developers of CIGS modules. For
example, Solyndra, Solibro, and Global Solar all pursue a co-evaporation process in which
elemental sources of Cu, In, and Ga are thermally evaporated onto the substrate within a
selenium-containing atmosphere. Using this physical vapor deposition process, CIGS
developers have achieved commercial glass/glass modules with module efficiencies greater
than 10% in 2010. Other firms have pursued a sputtering deposition process, including a) a
two-step process in which a Cu-In-Ga precursor is deposited initially via RF sputtering and
then selenized in the temperature range of 450-550 C in a selenium environment (typically an
elemental selenium vapor), or b) a one-step reactive sputtering deposition, in which elemental
Cu, In, and Ga are sputtered within a selenium environment to form the CIGS layer directly.
In addition, some commercial CIGS PV module developers use an electrochemical deposition
process to deposit CIGS, as well as a two-step process in which nanometer (nm)-scale or
micrometer (m)-scale particles are deposited via a printing step and then selenized using
rapid thermal processing (RTP), either with or without a selenium atmosphere to control
selenium loss during the high-temperature processing.

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Table 3. Example commercial copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) PV modules by



CIGS Deposition

Module Form







Global Solar

steel foil

selenization process

Ascent Solar

Johanna Solar




30 MW


cell strings


20 MWc



75 MW


two-step sputtering



30 MW




40 MW




640 MWe



steel foil

reactive sputtering



two-step ink

Solar Frontier


two-step sputtering



80 MW



two-step sputtering


11.4% f

0 MWf







30 MWg



glass tube




110 MWh


Wrth Solar






10.3%30 MW
Announced nameplate capacity of facilities as of 1 Jan 2010 unless otherwise indicated; does not necessarily
represent current production levels.
According to press release, average efficiencies are 10.5% while total aperture are efficiencies reach 11.3%
Expanding capacity to 130 MW by 2012.
Average aperture efficiency reported at 10.5% for modules [42].
Module plant capacity is 640 MW [45].
Preliminary data, available from 2011.
Expanding to 135 MW by end of 2010 [49].
Began construction of second 500 MW facility in September 2009 [51].
Co-evaporation method described in B. Dimmler, CIS competition with other thin film technologies [52].

In addition to the range of CIGS deposition processes used in commercial CIGS PV

module production, the form factor and substrate choice varies widely. Rigid soda lime glass
sheets, soda lime glass tubes, stainless steel foil, aluminum foil, and polyimide foil are all
used as the substrate for commercial cells and modules today. Firms such as Solibro or Solar
Frontier that use rigid glass sheet substrates use P1, P2 and P3 laser scribing steps to isolate
individual cells over the module deposition area, and then encapsulate the device using a
polymer laminate and a top cover glass. Developers using flexible foils (metal- or polymerbased) use a wider range of module assembly methods and module form factors. Some such
as Miasol, Global Solar, and Nanosolar cut individual cells from the flexible foil following

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the deposition of the TCO layer, then sort the cells according to efficiency and string similar
cells using conductive pastes, tapes, adhesives, or wires to form the final cell array of the
module. Other firms using insolating flexible substrates (e.g. polyimide) use mechanical
and/or laser scribing to define and connect cells via monolithic integration, including Ascent
The majority of CIGS developers are introducing their first commercial products in 2009
and 2010, and actual production levels are far less than the announced capacities.
Nevertheless, these same firms are also pushing forward technical and cost improvements to
CIGS cell and module designs. In particular, CIGS firms are developing thinner active layers;
alternative buffer layers to a) replace CdS to eliminate the use of cadmium or b) eliminate the
wet CBD process; new transparent conducting oxides or TCO alternatives; alternate cell
stringing architectures to improve light absorption and minimize electrical losses; and
improved laminates and barrier films to improve device efficiency and lifetime, particularly in
flexible module formats.
5. Organic photovoltaics (OPV) and dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC)
Among thin-film technologies, OPV and DSSC are the newest entrants to the commercial PV
product market. As shown in Fig. 4, the technologies under commercial development include:
a) dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs) utilizing a liquid electrolyte, b) polymer-based bulkheterojunction PV cells, and c) small-molecule, bulk-heterojunction evaporated multilayer
cells. Among DSSC developers, G24 Innovations (G24i) was the first to bring products to
market, including both flexible modules for integration with consumer products (e.g. laptop
bags) and glass/glass portable chargers for personal electronics [54]. While the record DSSC
efficiencies are over 10%, commercial product efficiencies are far lower. For example, while
Solarmer and Heliatek have each demonstrated OPV cells with better than 7% cell efficiency
in a polymer bulk-heterojunction and small-molecule evaporated bulk-heterojunction cell,
respectively the few of OPV commercial modules available are approximately 2% efficient.

Fig. 4. Schematics of example OPV cells and module device structures. (a) Polymer/fullerene
bulk-heterojunction PV cell, (b) DSSC device incorporating a liquid electrolyte, and (c) an
example multilayer, co-evaporated organic small-molecule device.

The low efficiency of OPV modules has limited commercial uptake, though caf umbrella,
portable chargers, and BIPV products have been demonstrated. And while OPV efficiencies
commercially lag behind their inorganic counterparts, a range of corporations are actively
developing OPV technologies, including Sharp, Sony, Mitsubishi Chemical, Toyo Seikan
Group, and Sumitomo Chemical [55]. The bulk of the development to date has focused on the
chemistry of the organic donor and acceptor materials, solvent selection to optimize printing
processes, and modified electrodes or interfaces (e.g. electrode structures to introduce of
surface-plasmons) to enhance performance of OPV devices [56,57].

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Table 4. Example OPV and DSSC PV cells and modules by developer


Technology type

Deposition Method

Efficiencya (%)



7.7% (cell)a



small-molecule bulkheterojunction
polymer bulkheterojunction


6.4% (cell); 1.75%

(Power Plastic 40





10.4% (cell)



Polymer bulkheterojunction


7.9% (cell); 3.5%

8.5% (8 cell string)





Stated efficiencies reflect the product and/or test cell as stated. Not all efficiencies reflect commercial modules.

6. Summary
The wide range of firms pursuing commercial production of thin-film PV modules has
experienced varied success in the PV market. On one hand, First Solar has led the path to low
cost production and dominated the global on-grid utility-scale, ground-mounted installation
market, while Uni-Solar has become the largest provider of flexible PV modules [26]. On the
other, most CIGS developers have installed few certified commercial products to date, while
OPV manufacturers are still developing their first commercial products. As the overall solar
market becomes increasingly crowded with vertically integrated companies boasting large
production capacities (e.g. 1,000 MW to 2,000 MW annual production each), new entrants
will need to pursue a wider range of applications to build sales and gain market share. Todays
thin-film PV developers target on-grid, ground-mounted, utility-scale and
commercial/residential rooftop installations as well as off-grid portable power applications for
consumer goods, camping, military, and automobile applications. In addition, thin-film PV
developers serve BIPV applications, from flexible shingles for residential roofs, lightweight
PV modules for flat commercial rooftops, and opaque and semi-transparent faade, balcony,
and shading structures.
As shown here, commercial thin-film PV modules across all technologies still trail the
performance of crystalline silicon PV modules of 13% to 19% today. To compete continually
with crystalline silicon PV incumbents, all thin-film PV developers must pursue performance
and production cost improvements. In addition to the improvements of the active device
layers, significant cost reductions and performance improvements may arise from
developments in the non-active module materials such as glass, glass replacements, laminates,
pastes, adhesives, and transparent conducting oxides. In addition, thin-film firms must address
concerns over installation costs to stay competitive. Thus, while the commercial success to
date of First Solar has demonstrated thin-film PVs potential to rapidly grow in the global
solar market, the greater growth and diversification of commercial thin-film PV products will
require further improvements on todays commercial technologies.

#131601 - $15.00 USD

(C) 2010 OSA

Received 13 Jul 2010; revised 25 Aug 2010; accepted 25 Aug 2010; published 10 Sep 2010

13 September 2010 / Vol. 18, No. S3 / OPTICS EXPRESS A486