Copper switch slashes solar’s price tag

By Amanda Bryan

20 October, 2022

Tech that replaces the traditional silver electrodes in solar cells has attracted the financial backing of tech billionaires.

Cheaper and more efficient solar is coming down the line thanks to a new tech that’s attracted some heavyweight investors looking to fast track its production.

The patented technology from an Australian startup called SunDrive uses copper as the conductive material to pull electrical current from solar cells in place of the industry standard which is silver.

SunDrive’s technology was created by co-founder and CEO Vince Allen who focused on replacing silver with copper in his PhD at the University of NSW. He founded SunDrive in 2015 in his garage alongside David Hu, a former fellow student and flatmate, with a view to commercialising the breakthrough.

The cool thing about copper is that it’s nearly 100 times cheaper than silver, an important consideration given that silver currently accounts for around half of the cost of solar cell production, so the switch could significantly drive down the cost of making solar cells.

Copper is also around 1,000 times more abundant. The solar industry already consumes around 10 per cent of the world’s silver, and 20 per cent of total industrial demand, underlining the need to find alternative minerals.

If that’s not enough, the SunDrive technology has also set world records for efficiency, further boosting its commercial appeal.  Last year SunDrive produced a solar cell with an efficiency of 25.54 per cent, making it the most efficient commercial-sized solar cell ever created worldwide. The panels on most suburban rooftops can only convert about 20 per cent in contrast.

The solar cells needed to decarbonise the world will need to be more efficient, cheaper and scalable than they are today.

Vince Allen

sundrive co-founder and ceo

vince-allen
source: SunDrive

Last month SunDrive beat its own record to achieve an efficiency result of 26.41 per cent as officially verified by the Institute for Solar Energy Research in Hamelin (ISFH) in Germany.

Unsurprisingly, the company has attracted A$21 million from a number of investors including two technology billionaires, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Canva co-founder Cameron Adams, and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The funding will go toward the establishment of mass manufacturing of the copper-based solar tech with plans to develop a pilot production line by mid-2023, and start selling the new panels in a year and a half – all with the grand aim to transform Australia into a solar manufacturing powerhouse in an industry currently led by China.

Allen said: “SunDrive is thrilled to now be working with Australia’s top deep tech and cleantech investors in developing next generational solar technologies.

“The solar cells needed to decarbonise the world will need to be more efficient, cheaper and scalable than they are today. The use of silver is the common denominator and is holding back the rapid advancements needed to transition to a solar powered electric world.”

The tech:

SunDrive’s patented solar technology uses copper instead of silver as the conductive material to pull electrical current from the solar cells. Not only is copper cheaper and more abundant, the cells produced are more efficient than existing silver technology, having recently set new solar efficiency world records. SunDrive last month achieved an efficiency result of 26.41 per cent on a full-size silicon heterojunction solar cell that uses large-scale production processes from China-based manufacturer Maxwell Technologies. SunDrive says that the use of copper plating technology has played a key role in the solar cell efficiency improvements.

Who funds it:

SunDrive recently received A$21 million in Series B funding from a group of high-profile investors including Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes, Canva’s co-founder Cameron Adams, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, the CSIRO’s Main Sequence innovation fund, the government-owned Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures. It was previously supported by Cannon-Brookes’ private investment vehicle Grok, Blackbird Ventures and Chinese-Australian solar pioneer Dr Shi Zhengrong.

Is it ready to roll:

According to SunDrive, the use of silver has been holding back the rapid advancements needed to transition to a solar powered electric world. The A$21m funding the startup has just raised will go towards the large-scale manufacture of the copper-based solar tech with a pilot production line expected to be operational by mid-2023. It is anticipated that new panels will be in production within eighteen months.

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