NASA researchers have developed a novel process for assembling thin-film solar cells into larger solar arrays. Current methods for solar array manufacturing depend on time-consuming, multi-step, manual assembly of solar cells into multi-cell arrays. This manual assembly will not be possible in a space environment.
Print-assisted photovoltaic assembly (PAPA) is an assembly process that leverages robotic automation to distill the traditional assembly method into four fully automated steps: applying adhesive to block substrate, placing the solar cells using a vacuum tool attached to a universal robotic arm, printing the interconnects and buses to connect the cells, and applying a protective cover.
By increasing manufacturing efficiency, PAPA’s no-touch technology can reduce labor costs, decrease time-to-market, and enable assembly of large-scale solar arrays of over 500 kW. This increased efficiency can help meet growing demand for large solar arrays in residential and satellite applications. Compatible with all currently available thin-film and 3D-printed solar cell materials, PAPA is capable of integrating with current and future solar cell technologies.
As solar cell technologies mature, PAPA will be able to incorporate advancements into the paneling process. NASA researchers have begun to employ PAPA solar array fabrication and estimate savings of $300 to $400/watt. For extraterrestrial assembly of solar panels the size of a football field or larger, PAPA could result in savings of approximately $500 million — a substantial cost savings driven by standardization and efficiency in the solar array assembly process.
By demonstrating increases in assembly efficiency, time, and cost savings and passing multiple environmental exposure tests, the PAPA lab protype has completed the final phases of technology development and is ready for scale-up and commercialization.