The people in the know say that Professor Alberts’ super-thin solar panel technology is “potentially the biggest solar energy breakthrough to date”.
It took more than a decade of research for a team of scientists at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, led by Professor Vivian Alberts, to achieve the breakthrough, named Thin Film Solar Technology (TFST), an advanced system that is poised to provide the final push needed to make solar power an accessible energy option.
It took more than half a decade for the thin solar panel innovation to be implemented in its country of origin, South Africa.
The technology was patented in 2003 and 2004. In March 2006, a R12 million pilot production facility was commissioned in South Africa. The pilot programme incorporated all critical production steps, but had limited production volume, due to limited space. In 2007, a German company, Johanna Technology, began manufacturing the panels commercially.
And in October 2009, a public-private partnership (PPP) between the Central Energy Fund and the National Empowerment Fund, and private investors, such as petrochemicals giant Sasol and the University of Johannesburg (UJ), has been set up to finally commercialise super-thin solar technology in South Africa. A facility that will produce thin-film solar modules is to be built in Paarl, Western Cape. According to Engineering News, the European Investment Bank announced that it would invest €40-million in the South African plant.
The solar panels invented by Professor Alberts consist of a thin layer of a unique metal alloy that converts light into energy. This layer is only approximately 5 microns thick. To get an idea of just how thin this is, it should be said that a human hair is 10 to 20 microns thick. The old-technology photo voltaic cells are usually about 350 microns thick.
Professor Alberts’ thin, photo-responsive alloy can operate on virtually all flexible surfaces. The panels based on this alloy will have a working life of about 20 years and can be recycled. This makes their production even more environmentally friendly.
The Thin Film Solar Technology makes solar electricity economically feasible. Professor Alberts says it is important to get production costs below $1/W, because it is the low production costs that make the technology attractive.
It has been also said that solar energy needs to be easy both on the pocket and on the eye before people turn to it. No one wants big ugly panels surrounding their place of adobe. That is another positive aspect of Professor Alberts’ technology: compared with its cumbersome forerunners, TSFT is aesthetically pleasing. The matt black, ultra thin film panels acquire the look of an attractive feature on modern buildings.