Solder On: Improving PV Module Manufacturing Practices with a Little Friendly Competition


Ed with Managing Director Nolan Browne and PV Fellow Robbie Jaeger.

[Editor’s Note: Today, former Fraunhofer CSE PV Fellow Ed Cahill shares his experience creating an internal contest to determine best practices in hand soldering for PV modules, and how his work prepared him for the solar research workforce.]

I graduated in 2010 from Middlebury College, where I majored in physics and minored in environmental studies. For most of my college career, I knew I wanted to work with renewable energy and during my senior year, I focused on solar photovoltaics. I wrote my senior physics thesis on a data analysis of an outdoor PV system, and from there I became addicted. It can be difficult for a recent graduate to break into the PV research field, but eventually, I found Fraunhofer CSE and landed an internship in PV module research and development.

While at Fraunhofer, I gained invaluable, hands-on experience manufacturing and characterizing photovoltaic modules. During numerous projects, I worked with a variety of tools to examine the limits of new module materials.

In the course of my work, I realized that solar cells are often prone to cracks and other defects during manufacturing. I began to think of process improvements to limit damage and encapsulation losses, and was particularly interested in manual soldering as a possible source of damage. The number of variables involved in a potential experiment, however, was daunting.  If I wanted to isolate factors that caused or prevented defects, I knew I would need help…lots of help.

I came up with the idea to host an internal soldering competition to determine best practices—and to have a bit of fun in the process.  In their spare time, each person in the group made a single string of cells—using manual soldering techniques—which I then encapsulated into a module. Participants also kept a detailed record of how they made their string. Everyone had the option of using one or more of the strategies I’d suggested for optimal performance/minimal damage at the outset of the contest.

After encapsulation, I inspected each string for defects, used electroluminescence to find cracks, and measured the performance of the strings. Based on these parameters, I scored the strings to determine the winner.

Our research director was eager to prove his soldering prowess, and even provided small prizes for the top three participants. However, the true prize came in the form of the results: learning about the processes everyone used and correlating them with the final performance.

Through this project, I was able to isolate factors that improve performance and limit cracks in the solar cells, and the results have led to refined techniques.

The thorough understanding of manufacturing processes and experience I gained with new module materials proved instrumental for my future in the solar industry. Currently, I am a research associate for Lux Research in Boston, where I provide research and consulting services to Fortune 500 companies interested in solar. My main function is to scout new technologies and forecast trends in the solar industry, during which I often reference work I did at Fraunhofer. My internship at Fraunhofer CSE was the stepping stone that got me to where I want to be: working in the solar industry.

About author
I'm CSE's former Director of Marketing and Communications. During my time at the Center, I launched the Cleantech Notes blog.
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