Innovalight boasts that it will be able to double the solar potency of its nanocrystalline silicon ink as soon as next year.

By 2012, additional improvements should push the efficiency of a mainstream crystalline solar cell using the ink to above 20 percent.

Conrad Burke, chief executive of the Sunnyvale, CA company, said the company's silicon ink today adds one percentage point to the efficiency of a mainstream solar cell. That means that a cell that is 18 percent efficient jumps to 19 percent.

Next year, the ink will add two percentage points to overall efficiency, and in 2012, the target is three. That should push the 18 percent crystalline cell to 20 percent next year.

Such a boost should interest solar cell makers fighting for each tenth of a percentage point gain -- and challenge efficiency leader SunPower. SunPower's cell design is more complex than others and may not easily lend itself to a silicon ink.

Innovalight's silicon ink is made up of silicon particles five nanometers to 10 nanometers in size. It is applied using the screen-printing technology typically used by semiconductor lines during back-end metallization.

When applied to solar cell production, screen-printing becomes a front-end process, and a relatively simple one, says Burke. Pattern alignment is not complicated.

Burke said prices for the printing tool have fallen to about $400,000. For this reason, don't be surprised to see 20-percent-efficient solar cells coming out of China sooner rather than later.

Already, Chinese solar cell maker JA Solar Holdings has latched on to the technology. The company this week announced a three-year contract with Innovalight and said its Secium cells would use the technology.

JA Solar's cells are in pilot production and have achieved 18.9 percent efficiency.