Thin-film technologies reduce the amount of active material in a cell. Most sandwich active material between two panes of glass. Since silicon solar panels only use one pane of glass, thin film panels are approximately twice as heavy as crystalline silicon panels, although they have a smaller ecological impact (determined from life cycle analysis). The majority of film panels have 2-3 percentage points lower conversion efficiencies than crystalline silicon. Cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and amorphous silicon (a-Si) are three thin-film technologies often used for outdoor applications.

Cadmium telluride[edit]

Cadmium telluride (CdTe) is the predominant thin film technology. With about 5 percent of worldwide PV production, it accounts for more than half of the thin film market. The cell’s lab efficiency has also increased significantly in recent years and is on a par with CIGS thin film and close to the efficiency of multi-crystalline silicon as of 2013. Also, CdTe has the lowest Energy payback time of all mass-produced PV technologies, and can be as short as eight months in favorable locations. A prominent manufacturer is the US-company First Solar based in Tempe, Arizona, that produces CdTe-panels with an efficiency of about 14 percent at a reported cost of $0.59 per watt.

Although the toxicity of cadmium may not be that much of an issue and environmental concerns completely resolved with the recycling of CdTe modules at the end of their life time, there are still uncertainties and the public opinion is skeptical towards this technology. The usage of rare materials may also become a limiting factor to the industrial scalability of CdTe thin film technology. The rarity of tellurium—of which telluride is the anionic form—is comparable to that of platinum in the earth’s crust and contributes significantly to the module’s cost.

Copper indium gallium selenide

A copper indium gallium selenide solar cell or CIGS cell uses an absorber made of copper, indium, gallium, selenide (CIGS), while gallium-free variants of the semiconductor material are abbreviated CIS. It is one of three mainstream thin-film technologies, the other two being cadmium telluride and amorphous silicon, with a lab-efficiency above 20 percent and a share of 2 percent in the overall PV market in 2013.[13] A prominent manufacturer of cylindrical CIGS-panels was the now-bankrupt company Solyndra in Fremont, California. Traditional methods of fabrication involve vacuum processes including co-evaporation and sputtering. In 2008, IBMand Tokyo Ohka Kogyo Co., Ltd. (TOK) announced they had developed a new, non-vacuum, solution-based manufacturing process for CIGS cells and are aiming for efficiencies of 15% and beyond.

Hyperspectral imaging has been used to characterize these cells. Researchers from IRDEP (Institute of Research and Development in Photovoltaic Energy) in collaboration with Photon etc.¸ were able to determine the splitting of the quasi-Fermi level with photoluminescence mapping while the electroluminescence data were used to derive the external quantum efficiency (EQE). Also, through a light beam induced current (LBIC) cartography experiment, the EQE of a microcrystalline CIGS solar cell could be determined at any point in the field of view.

As of September 2014, current conversion efficiency record for a laboratory CIGS cell stands at 21.7%.


Three major silicon-based module designs dominate:

  • amorphous silicon cells
  • amorphous / microcrystalline tandem cells (micromorph)
  • thin-film polycrystalline silicon on glass.

Amorphous silicon

Amorphous silicon (a-Si) is a non-crystalline, allotropic form of silicon and the most well-developed thin film technology to-date. Thin-film silicon is an alternative to conventional wafer (or bulk) crystalline silicon. While chalcogenide-based CdTe and CIS thin films cells have been developed in the lab with great success, there is still industry interest in silicon-based thin film cells. Silicon-based devices exhibit fewer problems than their CdTe and CIS counterparts such as toxicity and humidity issues with CdTe cells and low manufacturing yields of CIS due to material complexity. Additionally, due to political resistance to the use non-“green” materials in solar energy production, there is no stigma in the use of standard silicon.

This type of thin-film cell is mostly fabricated by a technique called plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition. It uses a gaseous mixture of silane (SiH4) and hydrogen to deposit a very thin layer of only 1 micrometre (µm) of silicon on a substrate, such as glass, plastic or metal, that has already been coated with a layer of transparent conducting oxide. Other methods used to deposit amorphous silicon on a substrate include sputtering and hot wire chemical vapor deposition techniques.

a-Si is attractive as a solar cell material because it’s an abundant, non-toxic material. It requires a low processing temperature and enables a scalable production upon a flexible, low-cost substrate with little silicon material required. Due to its bandgap of 1.7 eV, amorphous silicon also absorbs a very broad range of the light spectrum, that includes infrared and even some ultraviolet and performs very well at weak light. This allows the cell to generate power in the early morning, or late afternoon and on cloudy and rainy days, contrary to crystalline silicon cells, that are significantly less efficient when exposed at diffuseand indirect daylight.

However, the efficiency of an a-Si cell suffers a significant drop of about 10 to 30 percent during the first six months of operation. This is called the Staebler-Wronski effect (SWE) – a typical loss in electrical output due to changes in photoconductivity and dark conductivity caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight. Although this degradation is perfectly reversible upon annealing at or above 150 °C, conventional c-Si solar cells do not exhibit this effect in the first place.

Its basic electronic structure is the p-i-n junction. The amorphous structure of a-Si implies high inherent disorder and dangling bonds, making it a bad conductor for charge carriers. These dangling bonds act as recombination centers that severely reduce carrier lifetime. A p-i-n structure is usually used, as opposed to an n-i-p structure. This is because the mobility of electrons in a-Si:H is roughly 1 or 2 orders of magnitude larger than that of holes, and thus the collection rate of electrons moving from the n- to p-type contact is better than holes moving from p- to n-type contact. Therefore, the p-type layer should be placed at the top where the light intensity is stronger, so that the majority of the charge carriers crossing the junction are electrons.

Tandem-cell using a-Si/μc-Si

A layer of amorphous silicon can be combined with layers of other allotropic forms of silicon to produce a multi-junction solar cell. When only two layers (two p-n junctions) are combined, it is called a tandem-cell. By stacking these layers on top of one other, a broader range of the light spectra is absorbed, improving the cell’s overall efficiency.

In micromorphous silicon, a layer of microcrystalline silicon (μc-Si) is combined with amorphous silicon, creating a tandem cell. The top a-Si layer absorbs the visible light, leaving the infrared part to the bottom μc-Si layer. The micromorph stacked-cell concept was pioneered and patented at the Institute of Microtechnology (IMT) of the Neuchâtel University in Switzerland, and is currently licensed to TEL Solar. A new world record PV module based on the micromorph concept with 12.24% module efficiency was independently certified in July 2014.

Because all layers are made of silicon, they can be manufactured using PECVD. The band gap of a-Si is 1.7 eV and that of c-Si is 1.1 eV. The c-Si layer can absorb red and infrared light. The best efficiency can be achieved at transition between a-Si and c-Si. As nanocrystalline silicon (nc-Si) has about the same bandgap as c-Si, nc-Si can replace c-Si.

Tandem-cell using a-Si/pc-Si

Amorphous silicon can also be combined with protocrystalline silicon (pc-Si) into a tandem-cell. Protocrystalline silicon with a low volume fraction of nanocrystalline silicon is optimal for high open-circuit voltage. These types of silicon present dangling and twisted bonds, which results in deep defects (energy levels in the bandgap) as well as deformation of the valence and conduction bands (band tails).

Polycrystalline silicon on glass

A new attempt to fuse the advantages of bulk silicon with those of thin-film devices is thin film polycrystalline silicon on glass. These modules are produced by depositing an antireflection coating and doped silicon onto textured glass substrates using plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD). The texture in the glass enhances the efficiency of the cell by approximately 3% by reducing the amount of incident light reflecting from the solar cell and trapping light inside the solar cell. The silicon film is crystallized by an annealing step, temperatures of 400–600 Celsius, resulting in polycrystalline silicon.

These new devices show energy conversion efficiencies of 8% and high manufacturing yields of >90%. Crystalline silicon on glass (CSG), where the polycrystalline silicon is 1–2 micrometres, is noted for its stability and durability; the use of thin film techniques also contributes to a cost savings over bulk photovoltaics. These modules do not require the presence of a transparent conducting oxide layer. This simplifies the production process twofold; not only can this step be skipped, but the absence of this layer makes the process of constructing a contact scheme much simpler. Both of these simplifications further reduce the cost of production. Despite the numerous advantages over alternative design, production cost estimations on a per unit area basis show that these devices are comparable in cost to single-junction amorphous thin film cells.

Gallium arsenide

The semiconductor material gallium arsenide (GaAs) is also used for single-crystalline thin film solar cells. Although GaAs cells are very expensive, they hold the world record for the highest-efficiency, single-junction solar cell at 28.8%.[26] GaAs is more commonly used in multi-junction solar cells for solar panels on spacecrafts, as the industry favours efficiency over cost for space-based solar power(InGaP/(In)GaAs/Ge cells). They are also used in concentrator photovoltaics, an emerging technology best suited for locations that receive much sunlight, using lenses to focus sunlight on a much smaller, thus less expensive GaAs concentrator solar cell.