Thin Film types of solar panels

A true thin film solar panel is only a micron thick, that makes it cheaper to produce but less effective. License: Some rights reserved by adafruit

There is currently growing concern about the world’s energy future.  The price of fossil fuels is likely to increase in the next few decades as the world reaches first, peak oil production, and later, peak coal production.  These peaks will be reached faster due to environmental regulation slowing the expansion of drilling and mining.  Concerns are compounded by the scientific discovery of global warming, brought about by human activities.  (Namely, emissions of greenhouse gasses such as CO2, NOx, and SOx.)  The world’s governments, corporations, and citizens look for alternatives to the conventional sources of energy for transportation, industry, and homes.  One such alternative is solar power, and one great way to generate solar power is from thin film solar panels.  These special panels can be used in ways that bulkier, conventional photovoltaic panels cannot.  They are common, and their use is growing.  You have probably used thin film solar panels already!  Let’s dive into what these panels are, how they work, and what they are useful for.


It all begins with the sun…

Let’s back up for a moment, and start with the sun.  All energy on Earth comes from the sun, the star we orbit: the sun’s heat causes air and ocean currents to move, and makes possible photosynthesis for plants and certain single celled organisms.  The sun’s powerful ultraviolet rays reach our planet from across over 92 million miles (or 149 million kilometers) of empty space.  These “UV” rays can be harmful to human skin due to the high amount of energy they contain.  Examples include sunburns and skin cancer.  That high amount of energy from UV rays, if we know how, can also be put to work to generate electricity in two different ways.

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How we use solar power

Ultraviolet radiation can generate electricity for us through thermal solar power.  In this method, a collection of large mirrors (usually out the in the desert,) reflect and focus the sun’s rays onto a single point.  At that point, is a large metal tank of water that gets heated by the focused rays.  The heated water begins to boil off into steam, and (as in other methods of electrical generation, such as coal, hydro, or even nuclear,) the pressurized steam moves a generator to produce an electrical current, which we put into wires and transmit off for use in homes and businesses.

The method of generating electricity directly from solar radiation, (rather than from channeling the heat of the sun,) and the method which this article focuses on, is through photovoltaic, thin film solar panels.  Photovoltaic solar panels are made up of solar “cells”, made most commonly of silicon.  Ultraviolet radiation light photons from the sun hit the panel, and these photons knock loose electrons on the panel.  You can make the solar panel have a positive and a negative side, just like with a battery, and then attach conductive wires to both of these sides.  This forms an electrical current, and as long as light from the sun keeps hitting the panel, you will keep getting useful electricity!


What’s so special about thin film solar panels?

Thin film solar panels are photovoltaic, but different from most photovoltaic panels in some key ways.  In the case of non-thin film solar, the panel is made up of silicon “wafers” layered up to about 350 microns thick.  (A micron is one millionth of a meter.)  To compare, a thin film solar panel is only one micron thick!  This is thin enough to fit on small, portable devices such as calculators.  That is, one of the most common uses of these special thin solar panels, is in solar powered calculators!  Thin film solar panels are made of different materials than conventional photovoltaic panels.  Thin film panels are sometimes made partially of silicon, but more commonly include materials such as cadmium, telluride, cooper, indium, gallium, and deselenide.  The amorphous silicon type of thin film solar panels is popular as well, but, silicon is often in short supply nowadays, hence the rise in other materials.  It is also noteworthy that thin film solar panels have a layer of glass under the one micron layer of other advanced materials.

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What are the best uses for thin film solar?

One should also mention that because that they are so thin and light, thin film solar panels are also flexible. Their flexibility allows them to be mounted on a vast number of new places where photovoltaics have been impossible to implement in the past. the curved chassis of a car or a boat is now a perfect space to place these new energy collectors. If your roof is brittle and wouldn’t be able to stand the weight of other heavy types of PV panels like the monocrystalline or polycrystalline ones, thin film panels are the perfect choice for you. You can now put solar on your garage door for example. This is a part of the house where thicker solar panels wouldn’t fit. Within the clothing industry thin PV panels are being experimented with and can power decorative lighting sewn into fabric or even charge your Iphone.  As mentioned before amorphous panels are also great when used with small electronic gadgets like calculators, but are also common in other stuff like garden lights or device chargers. Flexible panels also differ in appearance vs. the other panel types, they often come in a classy solid black, making them ideal if you have higher standards in form of the design of your roof. You can even get thin film solar panels that looks exactly like ceramic shingles if that is what you wish.


How effective are thin film panels?

Thin film solar panels can take heat without losing performance better than their bulky counterparts. But on the other hand their performance isn’t so great to begin with. Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels outperform them. But since flexible panels are so much cheaper you will get out more electricity per buck. That is if you have a lot of roof space to sacrifice.  Beware thou that one day you may want to upgrade your solar system, especially since gas prices are going up and you maybe would want to charge your future car with solar as well. To avoid the need to tear down an old solar installation to make room for a new one you should have extra space on your roof available for upgrades.


Where to buy thin film solar panels?

Many professional solar installer don’t stock amorphous panels since they feel they are an inferior choice to the other alternatives out there. Not only are they bigger in area and cancerogenus if not recycled properly, because of their flexibility thin film solar panels often require more mounting to stay in place resulting in higher material costs and more man hours before they are up.

But then they are those companies that have overcome these obstacles by developing a standardized installation procedure and are cutting costs by printing out panels in bulk. Companies like IKEA for instance. Then there are a number of camping stores selling portable solar panels for hikers that are made out of thin film. If you would like to buy and install the panels by yourself we can also recommend buying them at Amazon or Ebay for a bargain price.



The comparative usefulness of thin film solar panels should be obvious: they are thinner than normal solar panels, and can therefore be used on a greater variety of roles, including on tiny electronic devices, or even potentially on clothing. They are cheaper and more stylish, but still they don’t only come with benefits, since they need more space and land is expensive they may not be the best choice for you. To get the solar panels that will best fit your needs make sure to weight your choices carefully and contact different companies before finally making up your mind.

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