Thermco: At the Heart of Solar
The concept of solar power is relatively simple; sunlight is converted into electricity through photovoltaics. The idea of free energy from the sun is one we’ve looked at idealistically for decades, although until recently it hasn’t had much impact on daily life for the majority of us.
Chances are, your most memorable experience of a solar panel is when you ran your finger along the single solar cell on a calculator. But in recent years, solar technology has grown and major solar installations have been built the world over. You may have even considered using Solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels for your home and business.
It is becoming an increasingly popular option, as it not only reduces your carbon footprint, but the government’s feed-in-tariff scheme makes solar panels a good investment opportunity.
While the idea of solar energy may seem a simple one, the technology behind it is staggering. It has taken us 130 years from the construction of the first solar cell to reach the point we are now at – where solar power looks set to become the energy source of the future. Right now, the world’s leading companies are pushing forward with research and engineering new ways to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells.
Computer manufacturers are looking at ways to incorporate solar cells into laptops so they can be charged on the move, phone companies are already introducing small panels onto mobile phones and the technology is being utilised for traffic lights, speed cameras and in many other ways.
The Solar power boom has been good news for one company based in Washington, just off the A24. But it’s been a long journey for this local company, which was founded in California before moving to West Sussex where it is run by local resident Gerry Thurgood. Thermco Systems, a division of Tetreon Technologies Limited, manufactures equipment that is used worldwide to manufacture industrial solar panels.
Thermco makes the sophisticated computer controlled furnaces that are used to process Silicon substrates, which eventually form the main component parts of a solar panel. This highly specialised equipment is vital as it is during the processing of the Silicon substrate that a semiconductor junction is formed. While that doesn’t mean much to most of us (I picked it up quite quickly as I got a D in GCSE science), it is this junction that generates electricity when light hits the solar cell. The part that Thermco plays is just one small step in the manufacture of a solar panel, but it is a hugely important one.
Controlling the depth and profile of the P-N junction through precise, computer controlled processing is vital to producing an efficient solar cell that will generate the maximum amount of electricity.
Thermco is known as one of the best in the business and the company has the largest world-wide installed base of horizontal diffusion furnaces. In addition to Thermco’s contribution to Solar PV production, its equipment is also used in the semiconductor, MEMS, Nano, and LED industries.
Gerry said: “This year, we have shipped to Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Korea, USA, France, Italy, India, Sweden and many other countries. We supply a wide range of customers as we are one of three major manufacturers of this specialist equipment in the world. Companies are constantly working to achieve higher solar cell efficiencies. The greater the efficiency the more applications there will be, charging portable devices such as phones, laptops and tablets, or feeding into the grid. The number of applications for this technology is expanding all the time.”
“We are working with universities on the development of next generation devices, trying new ideas, some of which sound simple – such as having two layers of cells and seeing if the photons will go through both layers effectively doubling the current generated for a given surface area. Reflectors and mirrors are used a to focus more sunlight onto solar panels, and we are also looking at new techniques in this area.”
The fortunes of Thermco have improved in recent years, and 2010 was a record year with huge growth. It looks set to be an even better 2011, and the company is hoping to expand its manufacturing capacity, with more people working in a bigger unit, in the near future.
“The reputation of the company has grown by word of mouth over many, many years,” said Gerry. “Even now we do little in the way of proactive selling. We could have people knocking on doors, but we are not in a position to take more orders without taking the business to the next stage which is a bigger facility with more staff.”
Gerry admits that in order to stay ahead, the company is constantly having to assess the direction in which the industries it supplies are heading, which is why they work so closely with universities, but one thing that looks certain is the continued growth of solar power. He said: “Photovoltaics is a relatively new technology but consider the alternatives. Fossil fuels are becoming more and more expensive, nuclear power which has a major risk
associated with the release of radiation, wind power and hydro-electricity. Solar power has so many advantages, it is free, portable, safe to harvest, uses no moving parts, and is available anywhere there is light.”