These cells are based on designs developed at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Tecstar Inc., a leading solar-cell manufacturer in City of Industry, Calif., is the first company to license two U.S. patents covering this particular technology from NREL for space use. Tecstar has adapted NREL's technology to use germanium substrates for the epitaxial growth of the cells for greater efficiencies and reduced cost for space missions.
More power from solar cells means that satellites can carry more communications links, experiments or other projects. With capacity as much as doubled, each satellite and its services can be more economical and offer a greater return to satellite customers.
The new cells will also have a longer useful life. Because of their construction they are less sensitive to the high-radiation environment of outer space. The commonly used silicon cells lose about half their efficiency after five years in space. But the gallium indium phosphide top layer of the new NREL cells is much more resistant to radiation damage.
The solar cells are the result of years of research funded by the Department of Energy. NREL scientists have been working with Tecstar engineers since 1991. Licensing fees will be used by NREL to pay for further research and science education.
Tecstar, Inc. was founded in 1954 as the country's first supplier of space solar cells. Today, the privately held company employs over 900 people with 1997 sales of more than $121 million. Tecstar supports the space and aircraft industries as a leading producer of critical aircraft subsystems and ground support equipment, and by offering the most advanced technology in spacecraft solar panels, arrays and subsystems employing silicon, gallium arsenide, and Cascade multijunction solar cell technologies. The company maintains an unblemished on-orbit performance on over 400 satellites.