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Solarion AG: From Lab to Market

Solarion AG, founded in 2000 in Leipzig, Germany, has established the first European pilot-line for the manufacturing of flexible and highly-efficient CIGS thin-film cells on a flexible carried material in 2002. As the company is planning to expand from its existing pilot plant into industrial mass production for CIGS-based modules in the year 2011, the first commercial product will be available next year. On the first day of Expo Solar 2010 held from February 3-5, 2010, in Korea, InterPV Senior Editor Amanda Kim had a chance to sit down with Karsten Otte, CEO of Solarion, to talk about the company’s growth path since its establishment and its vision, as well as his thoughts on the thin-film industry. Solarion works together with the most innovative institutes and universities in order to further develop its technology and looks forward to having more cooperation partners.

 Solarion CEO Karsten Otte poses for InterPV at Expo Solar 2010





You are founded in 2000. And since then, you have been focusing on improving solar cell efficiency. How did you first get interested in this area? If I am right, you studied physics and business administration!


As I studied physics in Germany and the U.S., I was a little bit frustrated about the theoretical science. So I went to applied material science. And I went to an institute which was close to my university in Leipzig, Germany, and we were investigating CIGS. That was about 1995. But we were always depending on somebody else to deliver us CIGS material. Because at that time we did not have our own technology to produce CIGS. So, we were frustrated and said, okay, why don’t we produce our own CIGS material. We combined our PV knowledge, with our semiconductor knowledge as well as with ion beam technology which was available at the institute and we came up with this idea of producing CIGS on the flexible substrate at low temperature and that’s where we use, for the first time, the ion beam technology. And as I did my Ph.D., this was about 1997 to 2001, we had an R&D program where we tested in a lab this technology. In 2000, we found out it worked and established the company in order to start pilot manufacturing. The proceeding years were related to the transfer of our laboratory technology into a pilot stage manufacturing and also going from a batch process--because at that time, we only produced very small samples--into roll-to-roll manufacturing. And that’s what we did since about 2002: setting up pilot line, developing the equipments and the process technology. So, it’s not only about efficiency increase, but itis also developing of the equipments, the machines, manufacturing yields, products, and so on.


Have you started mass manufacturing yet? If not, when do you plan to?


No--we are in the pilot stage. We plan this year to start the phase of mass manufacturing. Starting the phase means, you order the equipments; you set up the facility and the building. So, the first product will be available next year.

We have a typical German-based strategy: one first develops everything on pilot-phase as a proof-of-concept as well as working on reducing any risk in scaling before you go into mass manufacturing. You cannot buy this new technology or the equipment from the market, you need to develop it yourself. But, you also always work together with well-experienced cooperation partners.


How do you see the market? If this product is first released next year, what kind of acceptance do you expect from the market? And have you seen the demand?


We would not go into mass manufacturing if we do not believe that there is a market for our products there. For example, with a flexible product like this combined with its unique properties there is a large market potential related to flat-roofs of industrial buildings which still bear unused areas. There are a lot of customers with an interest to get products customized for their application and we have the capability to design the product with respect to their requirements. It’s a totally different market approach compared to today’s market where you have strong competition between companies who actually produce similar products with respect to size and weight and, hence, do not have a unique selling point in their products. Especially in the thin-film market, the only differentiation factor is actually the price--maybe also the quality--but not the size, power, or the efficiency. In our case, you have an additional feature like weight and flexibility. And it’s unbreakable.


Last year, you announced a new record efficiency of 13.4% for CIGS solar cells on a plastic substrate produced on an industrial roll-to-roll system. What made you achieve this milestone? What does this mean to the thin-film industry?


First of all, you can prove that by using a plastic substrate and the low temperature manufacturing process allows you to achieve high efficiencies. Because there have been a lot of speculations within the last couple of years in the communities--especially CIGS community--that when you use polymer as a substrate, you don’t have the capability to achieve high solar cell efficiencies. So we can prove with our world-record value that this assumption is wrong. Especially since we have this unique fabrication approach of the ion beam assisted deposition process. This proprietary technology is really unique since for the first time it allows to deposit a high-quality CIGS layer at low temperatures with a high speed. And besides this, we actually have raised efficiency--last week to 14.1%. So, this is very new. And all the solar cell efficiencies we announced, they are coming from our pilot line which is really roll-to-roll manufacturing.

Summarizing, achieving high efficiencies on polymer substrates is a break-through on the way to real low-cost manufacturing of thin-film modules.


What is the most recent efficiency of the CIGS thin-film solar cell?


There are not so many companies who deal with CIGS-based solar cells. However, you have to distinguish between the usage of flexible and rigid substrate material since it means also different production approaches and applications. The average efficiency on module level for rigid CIGS on glass is in the range of 9%-12%. And for flexible depending on the company and strategy, it’s between 7% and 11%. It’s always speaking about large area. In our case, we have an average efficiency which in the range of 9% to 10% on flexible. So that means, at the end, you have higher efficiencies than any amorphous silicon solutions and you are flexible.


What’s your efficiency goal this year?


For small size cells, we want to achieve 15% this year. And for large cell sizes, module sizes, about 11%.


Solarion CEO Karsten Otte shows a sample of flexible CIGS on polymer substrate.


The thin-film people have always looked for matching silicon in performance. Do you think they are reachable?


I think the goal of thin-film technology, especially amorphous silicon, was never ever to have the same efficiency like you have in crystalline silicon. And it’s not the goal of our company to have a technology with a better efficiency compared to crystalline silicon. So crystalline silicon, especially monocrystalline silicon, will always have the higher solar cell efficiency. However, for customers, it is not only efficiency that’s important. It is the Euro or the Dollar per Watt price. So, when you develop a new technology and when you start scaling you have to keep an eye on two facts:

One is to get a good efficiency and the second fact is manufacturing costs. So you have to work on both. And I think for thin film, it’s clear that you have the cost reduction potential, because of economy-of-scale and large-area deposition. This is even more pronounced when you go to roll-to-roll manufacturing. But you also have to keep efficiency in mind. So, I think thin film will be successful if you have efficiency which is equal or larger than about 10% and your scale to large manufacturing capacity. In this case the manufacturing costs on Euro per Watt are much, much better than those of crystalline silicon. In case of flexible thin-film modules based on CIGS you have the additional benefit of new market applications.


How do you motivate your people?


We have currently 50 employees. 10 of them are students--these students are diploma or Ph.D. students. Being the leading manufacturer of this kind of technology but also remaining it, we have a strong focus on cooperation with the universities and institutes and also with different companies.

Motivation comes out of two points: One point is that a lot of people like working for a company that is developing a new technology like flexible CIGS, so, they like the product, like the vision and they also enjoy working for clean tech, for a cleaner world and topics like this. But, at the end, it’s also important to have fun while working. So, what we have is a very nice climate within our company so that people like going to work and fight for the same goal we are sharing together. And, last but not least, the salary should be appropriate.


How will the solar industry look like in 5 years from now? And your company?


We are strongly convinced that PV electricity generation is the energy source of the future. Combined with advanced energy storage systems the future belongs to PV. The market in 5 years will still be dominated by crystalline silicon but thin- film technologies will gain significant market shares up to 40%. And the biggest increase here will be for flexible PV because currently this is strongly under represented and a continuous roll-to-roll manufacturing process with a glass-free product offers a nice cost saving potential in manufacturing and on the PV systems side. The consolidation of the market has already started. Some PV manufacturers with an inappropriate cost structure will disappear from the scene. Two factors are crucial to be successful: manufacturing costs on /W level and unique product features. We believe that Solarion is well positioned to face those challenges. In 2010, we will start with the construction of a 20 MW line which we will ramp up in 2011. In 2012, we will erect a >100 MW plant which will serve as the blueprint for our further expansion.


What are the major threats to the solar industry at the moment?


The answer is simple: cost. The cost of solar energy generation has to come down in order to raise competitiveness against conventional power generation.


What quick advice would you give startups looking forward to entering solar industry?


Put out a clean value proposition, get a solid business plan and be realistic and honest. Position yourself with potential customers, influencers and financial backers. And hire good people.


Which geographical markets are increasing the most for Solarion now?


Initially we will introduce our new products in the domestic market. So we will start our sales to German customers with international sales activities. Subsequently we will be able to reach regions like Southern Europe, the U.S.A. and Asia.


Amanda Kim is Senior Editor of InterPV. Send your comments to kbs@infothe.com.



For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

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