A semi-commercial plant for the production of a South African-developed thin-film solar module technology that offers a more efficient means of converting solar energy into electricity was officially opened in Stellenbosch on Monday.

The pilot production line for the manufacturing of thin-film solar modules was launched by South African technology development and intellectual holding company Photovoltaic Technology Intellectual Property (PTiP) in partnership with German engineering company Singulus Technologies.

According to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the development of the thin-film technology was initiated in 1993 by the University of Johannesburg’s Professor Vivian Alberts, whose work paved the way for the establishment of a pilot plant at the University of Johannesburg, with the help of funding from the DST.

The critical success demonstrated by the pilot plant secured further financial backing from the government, and led to the partnership with Singulus Technologies and the establishment of the demonstration plant in Stellenbosch.

According to Engineering News, the university, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the DST, through its Technology Innovation Agency, together invested R180-million in the plant. Singulus Technologies supplied the engineering technology and support for the key production processes.

The commissioning of the pilot facility “confirms the goals of the South African government to support and promote alternative and renewable energies, based on locally developed intellectual property and skills”, Professor Alberts, the CEO of PTiP, said in a statement on Monday.

“It is an important step for a successful energy policy in our country.”

PTiP’s thin-film module includes a unique homogenous semi-conductor alloy comprising five chemical elements. The total thickness of the active materials in the thin-film module is only 3 microns, compared to the traditional first-generation silicon technology with a thickness of more than 300 microns.

According to Singulus Technologies, thin-film modules only marginally lose performance amid low light or very high temperatures, unlike silicon-based solar cells.

“This results in the fact that thin-film solar cells produce electricity earlier in the morning hours and later in the evening hours,” Singulus said. “Furthermore, thin-film solar modules can be used as a design feature for the front or the roof of buildings due to their homogenous surface and better visual appearance.”

Alberts said the immediate goal was to set up a commercially viable production plant for thin-film solar modules in order to supply products with high local content to existing and future solar photovoltaic (PV) projects in South Africa. The local content of PTiP’s solar panels is between 80% and 90%.

“The European Investment Bank already announced its support for the establishment of a PTiP production plant and the mass production of PV modules,” Alberts added. “With the core production equipment and support from our partner, Singulus, we are able to industrially and efficiently implement our developed process.”

Photovoltaic technology is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. According to the DST, thin-film solar photovoltaic technology accounted for 11% of market share in 2011, and further growth is expected.