Chint Solar has raised $50 million from investors including the founder of WebEx Communications, which went public in 2000 and was bought by Cisco Systems for $3.2 billion in 2007.

Chint Solar, based in Hangzhou, China, lined up the financing from investors including Cybernaut Growth Fund and Shanghai Alliance Investment. Cybernaut's founder Min Zhu co-founded web-conferencing software developer WebEx, but resigned from WebEx in 2005 and moved back to China. He was involved in some legal disputes with a former business partner. On Cybernaut's website, Zhu described himself as a someone who has gone from being a "Chinese farmer to a Silicon Valley hero."

Chint Solar appeared to have been founded under the name Astronergy, which started operating in 2006 to produce crystalline silicon solar cells and panels, according to the company's website. Chint Solar is part of the Chint Group.

The solar panel maker plans to use the new funding to make amorphous silicon thin-film panels, however.

The company signed a contract with Oerlikon Solar last summer to buy equipment for developing and making tandem-junction solar cells, which have a layer of amorphous silicon and another layer of microcrystalline silicon for converting sunlight into electricity. This is a second-generation technology that can produce better performing panels than the first-generation technology, which involves depositing just one layer of amorphous silicon on glass.

Two of Oerlikon's customers, Inventux Technologies in Germany and Auria Solar in Taiwan, are already producing tandem-junction cells and assembling them into panels. Sharp, which has developed its own manufacturing technology, plans to start selling the same type of solar panels in the United States this summer (see Sharp Guns for U.S. Thin-Film Market).

Chint Solar said it plans to start mass-producing amorphous silicon panels in the second half of this year, and to build enough capacity to produce at least 240 megawatts of solar panels per year next year.

Most of the solar panels on the market today are made with crystalline silicon, which is expensive but more effective in converting sunlight into electricity. Because of the material's cost, a host of companies began to develop alternative technologies in recent years that make use little or no silicon.

Amorphous-silicon panels so far can achieve much less efficiency, hovering at about 6 percent to 8 percent, compared with the 19 percent efficiency by the best crystalline silicon panels on the market today.

Liyou Yang serves as the company's CEO and chief technical officer. Yang worked on amorphous-silicon technology while at BP Solar, and has more than 20 years of research and development experience in thin-film solar, the company said. Theodore X. Zhou, who serves as the chief scientist, worked at Solar Cells Inc. (before it became First Solar), Materials Research Corp. and Universal Display Corp.

Tags: chintsolar, funding, oerlikon, panels, solar, webex