According to a study by Andrew Eldib, president of Eldib Engineering and Research, a Berkeley Heights, NJ consultancy, the demand for polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) film in photovoltaic cells, as used to capture solar energy, is expected to more than double the current markets for these films. The overall market for solar photovoltaic installations has been growing at a rate of 30% per annum.
According to the study, solar photovoltaics generate electricity in more than 100 countries and, while yet comprising a small fraction of the world electricity-generating capacity from all sources, is the fastest growing electricity-generation technology in the world. The cost of photovoltaics has declined steadily since the first solar cells were manufactured.
PMMA films typically see use in applications where appearance is critical; examples include trim for auto interiors, housings for coolers in recreational vehicles, outdoor mill work such as windows, door and shutter surfaces for the premium priced markets, and outdoor signs and displays. But Eldib predicts the film's properties compared with other generally lower cost plastic films, such a polycarbonate film, make it well suited for use as a coversheet in solar photo voltaics.
Although solar panels with glass protective facing still account for the majority of the installations, the thin-film, flexible voltaic sheets that have a PMMA or competing film laminate as the protective cover sheet are rapidly gaining market share. The plastic films, while less efficient than the traditional crystalline silicon cells protected by a heavy glass sheet, can be made in a continuous roll at a considerably lower cost. It is the potential for reducing manufacturing costs that is predicted to bring about a more rapid growth in the thin-film solar photovoltaic, according to Andrew Eldib.
As PlasticsToday reported late last year, Evonik Industries, one of the world's largest suppliers of acrylic, and AU Optronics Corp., a leading manufacturer of thin film transistor liquid crystal display panels, have formed a non-exclusive agreement that will focus mainly on research and development, production planning, and manufacturing. One key goal of the new joint development program in Taiwan is to create new application markets for acrylic such as applications for PMMA in solar engineering and other alternate energy technologies.
Unlike markets driven by the usual business forces, the photovoltaic installations are largely shaped by government subsidies and goals for renewable energy. The cost of solar photovoltaics for electricity generation far exceeds the cost of electricity generated by the traditional sources and without continued support, this industry's rate of growth would halt, as it has in Spain. Yet within these driving forces, lowest cost delivery of power from solar sources is the key to business success, according to the study.
The high capital cost of the cells and panels is also being driven downwards in part by use of concentrators to collect more light to focus on the costly cells and thereby multiply the cell efficiency. This is being done using Fresnel mirrors formed though thermoformed or injection molded PMMA laminates, explains Eldib.
PMMA film is not the only plastics candidate for the sandwiched structure of the flexible thin-film PV module. Another polymer film used in the flexible sandwich structure is polyvinylidene fluoride laminate and an ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) copolymer used to encapsulate and protect the cells from the elements, particularly moisture. EVA film is supplied by, among others, SKC Covington Georgia, a member of the Korean SKC conglomerate. DuPont recently invested $295 million to increase the capacity of its polyvinyl fluoride film for back sheets by more than 50%, and expects to hit $1 billion in sales of products for photovoltaics by 2012.
For more information on this report, contact Andrew Eldib at Tel: (908) 464-2244, Fax: (908) 464-4626 or e-mail EldibER@comcast.net. —