Freescale Semiconductor has developed a chip that can harvest ultra-low voltages from solar cells, a technology that can make use of tiny amounts of energy that would otherwise go to waste.

The Austin-based chip company said Monday its DC-to-DC converter chip can work with voltages as low as 0.32 volts, compared with the 0.7 volts that are required to turn on a transistor in a chip today. The chip can amplify 0.32 volts into usable 4 volts.

That means the chip could effectively harvest energy generated by a single solar cell for many uses, the company said. Using Freescale's technology also can cut down on the number of cells needed for a solar powered equipment, thereby cutting costs, the chipmaker added. Freescale envisions the use of its chip to help charge lithium-ion batteries, cell phones, laptops and other industrial or personal electronics equipment.

Freescale is demonstrating the technology this week at the Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition in Washington, D.C. The company has made the chip a customized product for certain customers, but plans to announce a standard version of the chip in the late third quarter. The chipmaker has yet to determine the selling prices.

The chip company said its technology has a conversion efficiency of 82 percent for solar  and up to 90 percent for other types of energy harvesting.

Energy harvesting – how to maximize the use of energy from each solar power system –presents a growing business opportunity. A lot of research is going into cutting down the amount of energy that get lost during energy conversion. From the time electricity flows out of solar panels, it goes through a series of conversions between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) before it powers up a myriad of devices at homes and businesses.

One of the conversion processes, in which the direct current from the solar panels is converted to alternating current for feeding into the electric grid, already has attracted a number of startup companies (see Enphase Energy Seeks New Converts and Terra Watt Closing on $1.5M for Inverters). All these companies claim their products can boost energy production and monitor the solar panels' performances as well.

The energy harvesting market also is attracting long-time chip companies. National Semiconductor, for example, is developing a set of chips that the company said could recover power produced by panels affected by shading (see National Semi Casts SolarMagic). Shading, caused by trees or debris, can significantly reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the panels. Because the way a solar panel is designed, its energy output can be greatly compromised even if only a few solar cells are being shaded.

National Semi, based in Santa Clara, Calif., plans to launch the chipset later this spring.

Join industry leaders and influencers at Surviving the Shakeout: Greentech Media’s 2009 Solar Industry Summit in Phoenix, Ariz., April 14–15.