Peter Cousins, Senior Vice President of SunPower’s Cell Research and Development, was tasked with leading a team of SunPower’s brightest R&D minds on a journey to build a next generation solar manufacturing line at SunPower’s headquarters in San Jose, Calif. The newly completed $25 million research facility takes solar innovation to a whole new level. In this Q&A with Cousins, he shares a few highlights about this project.
Q. What was your overall goal for this project?
A. Our mission for the research facility was to reinvent the manufacturing processes for high-efficiency solar panels thus making them dramatically more cost-efficient, without compromising on performance or reliability. In fact, we are continuing to push the performance limits of silicon solar cells. This will enable our customers to access more efficient, more powerful solar panels.
Q. If you had to choose just one favorite innovation in the facility, what would it be and why?
A. It’s so difficult to pick just one. We had more than 50 people working on many different projects that all had to come together to make the new manufacturing line come to life. If I must choose one, then it would be a very simple innovation: a shield to enable the addition of material where it was needed, and to prevent it where it’s not. This simple shield changed our minds on a long-held belief of an unsolvable problem, and it eliminated an entire step from our manufacturing process. It is exciting to experience new innovations in areas that have remained stagnant for decades.
Q. On a recent tour, we noticed some huge shiny furnaces. What’s the story behind those?
A. I know they look so high tech, but I like to compare them to giant pizza ovens. They are for diffusing dopants into the silicon to create the collecting junction, which is where electrons are separated to ultimately create a voltage that facilitates extraction of electricity. Solar manufacturers have been using the same furnace design for the past 30 years. We decided to focus an innovation team on making them more productive, so we could produce more watts of solar cells from each tool. The result was nothing short of astounding, more than three times the output from each furnace! This both reduces the energy needed to produce a solar cell and lowers our manufacturing costs.
Q. What’s the smartest tool in the facility?
A. That would be our solar cell tester. It is incredibly important that our customers receive a product of the highest quality, highest reliability and highest safety standards. At the same time our global manufacturing lines pump out close to a million cells a day. How do we ensure each cell meets our rigorous standards? We enlisted the help of several advanced detection systems to measure and examine every detail of the cell, then married those with an artificial intelligence that continues to learn how to use all this information to not only ensure our customers receive the best, but to provide us new insights so that we can make better products. This is really cool.