Boeing’s Spectrolab, known for its super high-efficiency concentrated photovoltaic solar cells originally designed for use in space, has seen tremendous business growth and innovation in the six years since it launched its Earth-based sales operations.
The company is planning to expand factory capacity in Southern California, where it will produce solar wafers that are 150 mm in diameter instead of 100 mm, said Russ Jones, Spectrolab’s director of concentrated photovoltaic business development.
“The impact will be that we’ll have two and a half times as many cells on each wafer,” Jones said.
Those wafers are going out to the world through module manufacturers specializing in building high-efficiency concentrated solar projects. Jones said he could not talk about specific clients or reveal Spectrolab’s customer list.
“The people who are buying them are building large-scale ground-mounted concentrated photovoltaic systems,” Jones said. “I will say, almost everybody is buying them.”
The growth of Spectrolab’s terrestrial solar sales is due to a number of factors, including falling prices and increasing efficiency, Jones said.
When solar was first developed in the 1950s, the technology was too expensive for any application but space exploration, Jones said. But in 2005, Boeing saw a market opportunity opening up and began offering its concentrated photovoltaic cells, which are generally made with more rare and more expensive materials like Germanium than traditional silicon solar cells, to Earth-based solar panel manufacturers.
“It’s a fairly new endeavor,” Jones said of Spectrolab’s Earth-based program. “We became operational in 2005, and there was essentially nothing then. It has been growing steadily since, and there has been a significant uptake in the last year.”
He added that Spectrolab has seen efficiency gains of about 1 percent per year over the last few years as well.
The company broke the efficiency record in November with a solar cell that achieved 39.2 percent efficiency when mass-produced.
Growing demand for Spectrolab’s solar cells is being driven in large part by their falling prices. Jones said the company has been investing in increased automation for cell assembly in order to further drop prices.
Of course, increased efficiency automatically represents better value with more watts per dollar, he said.
“We see this as a big market opportunity,” Jones said, “and we’re going to continue to invest in it. There’s really no end in sight.”
Pictured: A technician holds a germanium wafer at Spectrolab. High efficiency Ultra Triple-Junction gallium arsenide solar cells are “grown” onto the wafers using specialized machines called reactors. Image courtesy of Boeing’s Spectrolab.
Editor's note: We originally reported that Boeing was expanding its South Carolina facility. But, in fact, Boeing is expanding factory capacity in Southern California. We apologize for the confusion.