1366 Technologies, a startup based on research conducted by solar Hall of Famer Ely Sachs, has landed $28.4 million in additional capital from GE Energy Financial Services, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Hanwha Chemical, and others in a deal that underscores three big trends.
Trend one: revolutionizing silicon wafers. Turning pure silicon into wafers can be a time-consuming, wasteful process. In a nutshell, pure silicon is formed into a log, or ingot, and then wafers are sliced off like mortadella. Nearly half of the silicon can end up as dust or waste product and silicon can cost more than $50 a kilogram.
1366 has coined a process it calls Direct Wafer. Molten silicon is directly converted into wafers, which can then be processed into solar cells, CEO Frank van Mierlo told us last week. No meat slicer. 1366's process results in little waste product and reduces the time required to produce wafers. Its multicrystalline wafers are also more consistent.
The company's goal is to produce wafers for around 25 cents a watt. Now, wafers cost around 72 cents a watt to make. A 25-cent wafer will lead to solar power -- including installation, electronics, and the module -- for $1 per watt. (The electronics will cost 10 cents, the balance of systems will cost 40 cents and the module will cost 50 cents.) Now, the cost is closer to $3.40, he said.
Other companies trying to take the waste and heft out of solar include Crystal Solar, Silicon Genesis, Ampulse, Astrowatt and Twin Creeks Technologies. (See the competitive landscape here.) Revolutionizing wafers is far from simple. Evergreen Solar tried to revolutionize wafer technology with its string ribbon technology, but size incompatibility with their odd-shaped wafers proved daunting and the firm is still feeling the echoes of that misstep today. Sachs founded Evergreen. Here's another warning sign: the technology 1366 hopes to commercialize is not the technology it started with. Van Mierlo, however, says that 1366 is aware of the history and passing milestones. "It is 30 times faster than the original process created by Ely Sachs in his Ph.D thesis," he said.
Trend number two: Asia. Hanwha is a large Korean conglomerate that recently bought a huge stake in Chinese solar maker Solarfun. Despite the extroverted love for IP that American companies are supposed to have, Chinese solar makers have actually seemingly been more open to new, outside ideas than have Western companies.
Innovalight has lined up a series of customers for its solar ink for boosting panel performance: all are from China. Companies that make DC maximizers say they get a lot of interest from China. These companies are looking far beyond just trying to be low-cost providers. (On a separate note, Honeywell has started to work with the State Grid Corporation of China to bring demand response to the country.)
Third, better wafers mean more U.S. jobs. Producing wafers and pure silicon is not like making oven mitts. it remains a research-heavy, precise process that requires lots of machinery, so established economies can compete. Currently, the U.S. produces around 40 percent of the world's high-grade silicon for chips and solar cells. It's a $1.7 billion business, van Mierlo said. But if U.S. companies turned that silicon into wafers, it would become a $7 billion business and add 50,000 domestic jobs.
The Bessemer process cut the cost of producing steel by 80 percent, van Mierlo noted. Glass was a known commodity to the ancient Greeks. However, the Pilkington process devised in the 19th century dropped the cost by 80 percent.
"If you want to innovate in manufacturing, you'd better do some," he said. "You can't innovate in manufacturing unless you innovate in equipment."
He also pointed out that Gillette, the razor company, still produces in Boston. 1366, in fact, has recruited engineers from the company because of the precision engineering devised at the consumer goods company. Gillette puts out 10 razors a second on a manufacturing line.