A few more tidbits on stealthy Alta Devices, the photovoltaic startup with disruptive intentions from their GaAs technology:

The firm is topping off the $72 million round mentioned below with help from First Hand Funds. The pitch deck circulating amongst angels and high-net-worth individuals speaks of 40 megawatts of production on-line in 2013 and the necessity of raising an additional $75 million in 2012 for their eventual $2 billion market capitalization.

When we spoke to the firm last month, the decision about the eventual product -- rigid module flexible module or cell -- had yet to be finalized.

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[Article from March 10]

Alta Devices is looking to deliver very high solar efficiencies at very low costs using an unconventional material -- gallium arsenide.

Alta has been tight-lipped about their technology and much about their efforts remains confidential -- but today the startup began revealing a few details about its promising solar research and development. 

Earlier this week, the firm announced that it received $72 million from August Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Crosslink Capital, DAG Ventures, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Presidio Ventures (a Sumitomo company), Technology Partners, Dow Chemical and new investor Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), Good Energies, Energy Technology Ventures (a joint venture involving GE, ConocoPhilips and NRG Energy), and Constellation Energy. (These days, raising large funding rounds for solar firms obviously requires long lists of investors.)

I spoke with Chris Norris, the CEO, and Joseph Foster, the VP of Business Development, this afternoon.

Like many renewable energy firms, Alta aims to be competitive with fossil fuels in a non-subsidized environment. That's a noble goal, but one that's exceedingly difficult to realize -- no solar company has yet hit that milestone. Alta looks to achieve it by:

  • Optimizing production economics
  • Maximizing energy density as well as conversion efficiency -- energy density addresses the material's performance over the course of the day and year, as well as in varying light and temperature conditions. (The CEO said that STC energy efficiency was not always a good proxy for energy density.)
  • Providing an adaptable form factor to reduce installation cost or creating unusual approaches to the form factor -- the CEO spoke of photovoltaic roof shingles as an example.

The firm's basic technology is centered around gallium arsenide (GaAs). The material is a single-crystal, direct bandgap compound with a high conversion efficiency, good performance in low light and across the temperature range. (Maybe not as good as Off-Grid Solar's temperature range, but still adequate.) The theoretical efficiency of the material is 34 percent.

The epitaxial lift-off technique pioneered by Eli Yablonovitch allows Alta to produce layers of GaAs that are flexible and only one micron in thickness. Norris cited Mylar films, used in kids' balloons, as an industry that regularly handles films that thin. Additionally, the process doesn't consume a lot of materials.

The CEO emphasized that their first product is still two years from commercial shipment and that they remain "agnostic" about whether the end-product is a cell, a flexible module, or a rigid glass module. The target cost remains $0.50 per watt and the the CEO sees that as achievable because "the lever that we have on our side is energy density."

Alta confirmed that they had produced an NREL-confirmed GaAs cell with an efficiency of 27.6 percent, admittedly a hero cell. 

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We've reported on the scant details known about stealthy solar startup Alta Devices a few times in the past.  We've questioned the value of solar startup stealthiness and we covered Alta's $3 million in NREL solar incubator funding here

This just in: according to the City Manager of Sunnyvale, Alta Devices just leased 115,000 square feet of space on Oakmead Parkway in Sunnyvale, California and "plans to move into the Sunnyvale site in early 2011."

Helping finance that lease will be the recent funding Alta has received from GE Financial Services (initially reported by Earth2Tech) and verified by our contacts at the investor.

We're awaiting comment from Alta's CEO, Chris Norris, and Alta's investors on the new facility as well as the 2011 plans for this ambitious firm.

Here's a quick review of all things Alta:

Alta Devices received $3 million in funding from NREL as part of the DOE's Photovoltaic Incubator Program "to support the development of early-stage solar energy technologies and to help them advance to full commercial scale," as per the DOE website. According to the DOE announcement, Alta Devices will focus efforts on developing an innovative high-efficiency (>20%), low-cost compound-semiconductor photovoltaic module, with market entry expected in 2011.

A recent job posting described the company in this manner:

"Alta Devices looks to develop solar cells up to 30% efficient at a module cost below 50 cents per watt. Alta has developed a unique and foundational thin-film technology that delivers the world's highest efficiency/lowest cost solar modules. Alta's solar cells are based on high efficiency compound semiconductor materials and proprietary manufacturing equipment to grow thin film solar cells. The technology is compatible with both rigid modules and roll-to-roll processing."

Founded by renowned solar experts Harry Atwater of Cal Tech and Eli Yablonovitch of UCB, Alta has filed 23 patents and has assembled a world class solar technology team of 11 PhDs, eight of which are from Cal Tech and MIT. [Yablonovitch was also the discoverer of photonic crystals.]

Alta is well-funded by venture firms Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers (Bill Joy), August Capital (Andy Rappaport), Crosslink Capital (Alain Harrus), New Enterprise Associates (Forest Baskett) and Technology Partners (Ira Ehrenpreis) with a Series B financing concluded 4/1/09. 

An insider has told us that the company has achieved over 20 percent efficiency in the lab.  The company's CEO has confirmed this figure, as well as their price and efficiency targets.

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Here's a sampling of their personnel and ex-personnel:

Stewart Sonnenfeldt was the founding CEO according to LinkedIn, and his name is on a number of Alta's patent applications. I asked Sonnenfeldt for some information on the firm and he was characteristically uncommunicative.  Sonnenfeldt was briefly CFO of rooftop CPV startup Soliant. 

The current CEO and president is Christopher Norris, a former Venture Partner at Blue Run Ventures and long-time Cypress Semiconductor executive.  

Andy Hegedus is a Senior Scientist at Alta Devices. He had a long history at Applied Materials.  

Gregg Higashi, the Managing Director, was formerly at Applied Materials and Intel.  

Other personnel come from SoloPower, such as Joseph Foster, VP of Business Development.

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A recent article in Nature Materials (Vol. 9, p. 239) cited another technology being investigated by Atwater and his people, describing it as "microscale silicon rods [that are] poured into a polymer containing light-reflecting nanoparticles. [...] The polymer scatters unabsorbed light back onto the rods and this, combined with a silver reflecting layer at the bottom of the device, allows the cells to absorb up to 85 percent of incoming light." This is not the technology being commercialized at Alta, however.

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A look at some of the Alta patents reveal the technologies being investigated:

This patent clearly identifies the use of GaAs, AlGaAs, InGaP and alloys thereof in the Alta Devices tool kit.

The epitaxial lift-off technique pioneered by Yablonovitch has yielded 26.1% thin-film GaAs solar cells in this research by Bauhuis, et al.

And, of course you'll need to patent custom CVD equipment to accomplish these feats.

I spoke with a brilliant colleague who is an officer at a large, bankable Chinese solar manufacturer about Alta Devices and companies like them. He declared that his firm would not hesitate to acquire a company like Alta that could actually achieve their lofty price and performance goals and scale to mass production. 

But there remain a lot of questions to be answered about Alta. Are they building cells or modules? Are they trying to license the technology a la Innovalight? Can the technology and material requirements scale to hundreds of megawatts and gigawatts? 

We'll keep digging.

Tags: alta devices, august capital, bill joy, compound semiconductors, crosslink capital, eli yablonovich, gallium arsenide, ge, gen 2 pv, general electric, harry atwater, high-efficiency, kleiner, kleiner perkins, kleiner perkins caufied & byers