Researchers at State University of New York (SUNY), Binghamton, Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM), are giving the factory production of solar-energy cells a modern makeover. Their approach includes the use of “continuous electronic sheets,” which they recently described in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, published by the American Institute of Physics.

“The goal is to apply the next generation of manufacturing to address the energy challenge in the way solar cells are produced,” said Howard Wang, the lead researcher. “We think nanoscale engineering is the key to this new low-cost opportunity for enhancing the solar-energy landscape.”

CAMM’s approach includes the use of large-scale, flexible-format, roll-to-roll manufacturing. This process resembles the printing of newspapers where a roll of paper is continuously fed into a press. However, the CAMM team proposes feeding continuous electronic sheets. To reach this goal, the team devised a promising hybrid material that has high structural quality and is also compatible with a roll-to-roll processing technique.

“By driving the cost of production down and maintaining quality with the hybrid, we can create a product that can be competitive with silicon-based products,” Wang said.

CAMM’s findings may be very timely. With robust demand for solar- and solar-thermal-generated electricity worldwide and compelling governmental subsidies and tax credits, the global photovoltaic market in 2011 will experience unprecedented growth, with installations rising by 42.3 percent for the year, according to the market research firm iSuppli Corp.

Driven by rapid global industrialization, finite fossil fuel reserves and the high cost of many alternative-energy options, meeting the world’s energy challenge may demand novel solutions. CAMM’s potential solution has its roots in the ubiquitous industrial invention: the old-fashioned factory model equipped with the latest technology.