The PEELER project: the development of an innovative process in the field of solar energy

Members of the PEELER project research group accompanied by representatives of the industrial partner Umicore.
Photo: UdeS – Michel Caron

The PEELER project was born out of a collaboration between the Interdisciplinary Institute for Technological Innovation (3IT) of the University of Sherbrooke and the industrial partners Stace and Umicore. At the heart of this major initiative is a team with complementary expertise made up of nine university researchers, eight industrial researchers and engineers, and three research professionals.

This collaborative research project aims to reduce the costs as well as the environmental impacts caused by the production of very high efficiency solar cells, which are manufactured on germanium substrates.

The project is led by professors from the Faculty of Engineering: Prof. Abderraouf Boucherif, project manager, Prof. Ryan Gosselin and the following researchers who are members of 3IT/LN2: Prof. Richard Arès, Prof. Abdelatif Jaouad, Prof. Maxime Darnon as well as Prof. Denis Machon.

The development of a thin layer separation process

Abderraouf Boucherif, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke, and member of 3IT and LN2, is responsible for the PEELER project. He is also a member of the Quebec Center for Functional Materials (CQMF).
Abderraouf Boucherif, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke, and member of 3IT and LN2, is responsible for the PEELER project. He is also a member of the Quebec Center for Functional Materials (CQMF).
Photo: UdeS – Michel Caron

Currently, the methods for manufacturing these substrates are expensive, polluting and waste extremely rare materials. Although only a few micrometers are needed to achieve an electrical conversion effect, a large thickness of material is used in the manufacture. The excess is then used as mechanical support, which constitutes a loss of rare material.

It’s like making a cell phone shell entirely out of gold instead of using a thin layer of gold plating to color the phone.

Pr Abderraouf Boucherif, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke

The PEELER project team focused on developing a thin film separation method to reduce environmental impact and production cost.

The principle is similar to that of a photocopier, that is to say that we are able to copy the crystalline characteristics of a substrate in an identical way, which then allows us to cover a larger surface quickly and at low cost. This image used by Pr Abderraouf Boucherif is used to simply explain that this technology consists of reusing the same substrate several times thanks to a thin layer separation method.

Funding for this research project totals $3.825 million and comes from several organizations such as MITACS, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, CRSNG and InnovÉE.

Funding is distributed according to the following ratio: approximately 20% by industrial partners, 40% by the federal grant from NSERC and 40% by the provincial grant from InnovÉE.

A first in research

This manufacturing method is innovative: for the first time in research, a separation technique is introduced on the scale of a germanium substrate (100 mm in diameter).

In other words, the use of this technique developed at 3IT makes it possible to significantly reduce the cost of components as well as the environmental impact linked to the manufacture of solar panels. This research is part of the Quebec energy policy which targets innovation in the field of renewable energy, and also aligns with the Canadian Renewable Transition Guidance. Germanium is notably part of the list of strategic materials in Canada.

We are very pleased with the progress of the PEELER project. This is a major project in the field of concentrated photovoltaics where Stace is a world leader. The benefits of the project represent a significant breakthrough in this area. The intelligent substrate recycling process opens the door to highly efficient solar cells, accessible on a large scale and with a significant cost reduction.

Christian Dubuc, Director of Innovation and Development of solar products, Stace

The next steps of the PEELER project

Pr Abderrouf Boucherif, Laurie Mouchel, Thierno Mamoudou Diallo and Valentin Daniel in front of epitaxy equipment.
Pr Abderrouf Boucherif, Laurie Mouchel, Thierno Mamoudou Diallo and Valentin Daniel in front of epitaxy equipment.
Photo: UdeS – Michel Caron

The research team hopes that the technology developed can eventually be transferred to the industrial level. Two patent applications have also been filed, in collaboration with the recovery company TransferTech. The team successfully demonstrated the concept and are now working on the production demonstration.

The team would also like to bring this technology to other optoelectric applications, such as the Internet of Things, infrared cameras for self-driving cars and telecommunications.

Surround yourself with an interdisciplinary team

This project brings together several fields, such as nanotechnology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physical engineering and computer science.

The advantage of working at 3IT is the proximity of people from several sectors. Interdisciplinarity is an essential element of the project since it involves notions drawn from multiple disciplines. Thanks to the combination of these fields of study, we were able to obtain these promising results!

Pr Abderraouf Boucherif, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke

Teamwork and collaboration

At the heart of the project are nearly 30 passionate people, including students, professors, industrialists and research professionals, who invest themselves in order to obtain results that are unique in the world.

What I particularly appreciate about the collaboration with 3IT researchers is the creation of a real work team. Together, we have developed an innovative technology that paves the way for a new type of thin solar cells for space applications, such as powering moon bases, while reducing the costs and environmental impact of production. This PEELER project is very important for Umicore, especially since it will continue until industrialization.

Kristof Dessein, Chief Innovation Officer at Umicore

This type of project would not be possible without the help of all these people, many of whom work behind the scenes. Professor Abderraouf Boucherif would like to thank them for their unique contribution. Here is a short presentation of two members of the PEELER project team.

Laurie Mouchel, doctoral student in mechanical engineering

Laurie Mouchel, holding a substrate, alongside epitaxy equipment.
Laurie Mouchel, holding a substrate, alongside epitaxy equipment.
Photo: UdeS – Michel Caron

Laurie Mouchel’s doctoral studies, under the direction of Pr Abderraouf Boucherif, are part of this industrial project and aim to take part in development and innovation in the field of renewable energy. His thesis subject promotes the advancement and improvement of solar cells in order to increase their efficiency while limiting manufacturing costs.

By working on an issue that is both environmental and economic, I can contribute to generating a beneficial impact for our future. The environmental challenge occupies a very important place at 3IT. The technological capacity of the institute allows us to carry out our research. Collaborating with the industrial environment allows me to concretely exploit the progress made within our team and to be able to acquire valuable expertise for the rest of my career. »

Laurie Mouchel, PhD student in mechanical engineering at 3IT


Philippe-Olivier Provost worked with Pr Abderraouf Boucherif for the development of the device that manufactures the substrates.
Philippe-Olivier Provost worked with Pr Abderraouf Boucherif for the development of the device that manufactures the substrates.
Photo: UdeS – Michel Caron

Philippe-Olivier Provost, research professional in mechanical engineering

Philippe-Olivier Provost is the mechanical designer of the device that manufactures the substrates. In 2020, he developed the latest version of the device which allows to obtain a complete treatment of the surface of the substrate, which was a major challenge for the continuation of the project.

I was involved as an intern ten years ago on what was the basis of the current project. I am very proud of the path travelled, the scope and influence of the current work. This success is possible thanks to the hard work of the current team and all its former members. It’s really the demonstration that alone we go faster, but that as a team we go further!

Philippe-Olivier, research professional at 3IT


About partners

Stace

Saint-Augustin Canada Électrique Inc., which is located in St-Augustin, near Quebec City, has been manufacturing isolated phase busbars and auxiliary equipment since 1977. STACE also designs and manufactures busbars specific to the power market. wind power. These are found in more than 10,000 towers in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Since 2017, Stace has been designing, manufacturing and installing complete conventional and concentrated solar energy solutions including energy storage. Renewable resources are a priority at STACE who are constantly looking for socially responsible technologies that reduce environmental impact.

Umicore

Umicore’s electro-optical division creates hardware solutions for optical and electronic applications for customers around the world. The megatrend of hyperconnectivity is at the center of their new product and service developments. This megatrend is a combination of ubiquitous communication networks, sensors and artificial intelligence, and will create exciting new possibilities and opportunities in society.

LN2

The Nanosystems and Nanotechnologies Laboratory (LN2) is an International Joint Unit (UMI) and a joint laboratory between the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Sherbrooke. The LN2 is supervised by Grenoble Alpes University, INSA Lyon, École Centrale de Lyon, Lyon 1 University, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Sherbrooke.

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The PEELER project: the development of an innovative process in the field of solar energy


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