How Thin-film Solar Cells Work

By: William Harris

What is a Thin-film Solar Cell?

A copper indium gallium deselenide solar cell using glass
A copper indium gallium deselenide solar cell using glass
© 2008 HowStuffWorks

If you've used a solar-powered calculator, you've seen a solar cell based on thin-film technology. Clearly, the small cell in a calculator is not big and bulky. Most are about an inch (2.5 cm) long, a quarter-inch (0.6 cm) wide and wafer-thin. The thinness of the cell is the defining characteristic of the technology. Unlike silicon-wafer cells, which have light-absorbing layers that are traditionally 350 microns thick, thin-film solar cells have light-absorbing layers that are just one micron thick. A micron, for reference, is one-millionth of a meter (1/1,000,000 m or 1 µm).

Thin-film solar cell manufacturers begin building their solar cells by depositing several layers of a light-absorbing material, a semiconductor onto a substrate -- coated glass, metal or plastic. The materials used as semiconductors don't have to be thick because they absorb energy from the sun very efficiently. As a result, thin-film solar cells are lightweight, durable and easy to use.


There are three main types of thin-film solar cells, depending on the type of semiconductor used: amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium deselenide (CIGS). Amorphous silicon is basically a trimmed-down version of the traditional silicon-wafer cell. As such, a-Si is well understood and is commonly used in solar-powered electronics. It does, however, have some drawbacks.

One of the biggest problems with a-Si solar cells is the material used for its semiconductor. Silicon is not always easy to find on the market, where demand often exceeds supply. But the a-Si cells themselves are not particularly efficient. They suffer significant degradation in power output when they're exposed to the sun. Thinner a-Si cells overcome this problem, but thinner layers also absorb sunlight less efficiently. Taken together, these qualities make a-Si cells great for smaller-scale applications, such as calculators, but less than ideal for larger-scale applications, such as solar-powered buildings.

Promising advances in non-silicon thin-film PV technologies are beginning to overcome the issues associated with amorphous silicon. On the next page, we'll take a look at CdTe and CIGS thin-film solar cells to see how they compare.