Idea Silicon Is Becoming Scarce Is Absurd

RECEIVED Tue., Feb. 12, 2008

Dear Editor,
    In Daniel Mottola's story about HelioVolt coming to Austin [“Solar Celebrity HelioVolt Lands in Austin,” News, Feb. 8], he said that one of HelioVolt's big advantages is that their new thin-film solar-power technology "doesn't rely on increasingly scarce silicon," as most current solar panels do. Silicon is far from being scarce; it is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust (after oxygen) and constitutes about 25% of everything around us. Rocks, sand, you name it, they're mostly made of silicon. I'm delighted that HelioVolt is coming to Austin, but the idea that anyone is shifting to copper-indium-gallium-selenide solar panels because silicon is becoming scarce is just absurd.
Bruce Hunt
   [Daniel Mottola responds: Mr. Hunt is correct to point out that raw silicon, often sourced from sand, is abundant on Earth. However, silicon must be intensively refined in order to be utilized in things like photovoltaic crystalline solar panels and computer semiconductors. David Brearley, vice president of design for Austin-based solar design and installation firm Meridian Energy Systems Inc., explained that silicon refineries cost billions of dollars and take years to build. In the years since the dot-com bust, he said, a global surplus of refined silicon supply has turned into an acute global shortage, thanks mainly to the explosive growth of the solar industry (approximately 40% annually). Brearley said the refined silicon shortage has heavily hindered the PV industry's growth for the last four years especially. In 2008, experts finally expect supplies to grow. He added that PV manufacturers have to compete with computer semiconductor producers for refined silicon supply, though solar-grade silicon requires less refining. PV companies had historically bought refined silicon on the spot market with no guarantee of supply, while many semiconductor firms had long-term contracts, he said. So in essence, it's not silicon that's been in short supply but rather refined silicon.]
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