"Evidently, they've run into some technical difficulties that preclude production," said Paul Maycock, president of solar-electric consulting and research firm Photovoltaic Energy Systems. "It's very difficult to make thin film."
Last year, Miasolé told Red Herring it was aiming for full-scale production by 2008 and later told CNET it hoped to have 200 megawatts of capital to produce its thin-film solar panels -- and a profit -- by 2007.
The company raised $50 million earlier this year and announced that Joseph Laia would be the new CEO (see Miasolé Snags $50M).
But three former workers confirmed Thursday that the company has laid off about 40 employees and that former CEO David Pearce, who had been expected to stay on as chief strategy officer and chairman of the board, left the company just before Thanksgiving (see Former Miasolé Employees Confirm Cuts).
The layoffs are "a testament to how careful you need to be about some of the choices in process technology," he said.
Thin-film solar technologies use little or no silicon, a potential advantage in today's worldwide shortage of solar-grade silicon. Instead of slicing wafers of silicon crystals to make solar cells, thin-film companies coat plastics, glass or other substrates with thin films of material that convert sunlight into electricity.
Advocates say such technologies could dramatically reduce the cost of solar power. But in spite of decades of research, thin films had proven difficult to produce cost-effectively.
Notable exceptions include First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR), which has the capacity to produce up to 210 megawatts of cadmium-telluride cells, and United Solar Ovonic, which has a capacity of 28 megawatts to produce amorphous-silicon films.
But copper-indium-selenide -- or CIS -- cells, which have been the most efficient thin-film materials in tests, have proven more difficult to produce, Maycock said.
"People have had a lot of trouble with CIS," he said.
He pointed to Shell, which had been running a thin-film pilot plant with about 2 megawatts of annual capacity for about eight years and then last year formed a joint venture with Saint-Gobain to develop a 20-megawatt plant that it planned to expand rapidly (see press releases here and here).
"We haven't heard anything [since then]," he said.
Miasolé is developing copper-indium-gallium-selenide -- CIGS -- cells. Nanosolar, which Tuesday announced it had begun commercial production of its cells, and HelioVolt, which Thursday said it had selected a location for its first factory, also are both working on CIGS technologies.
But competitors like Nanosolar don't want to be tarred by the same brush.
The difference is in the deposition, or the way the companies coat substrates with the CIGS material, Nanosolar says.
Miasolé's thin-film technology uses the "sputtering" process that is used to make architectural glass and thin-film disk drives. The company has claimed it expects the process will allow it to produce more energy-efficient cells for 60 to 70 percent less than the cost of today's cells (see Thin-Film Startup Raises $35M).
Nanosolar said its technology, which uses a printing process involving ink in which photovoltaic nanocrystals have been suspended, avoids some of the difficulties of such a process.
"We've been saying for years that with a sputtering process you run into some yield issues, and that's exactly what has turned out to be the case," Roscheisen said. "The functional complexity of mastering a vacuum process is huge and challenging. That's why we've spent so many years applying a printing process from semiconductor manufacturing, which is so much simpler and less complex. Miasolé is basically starting from scratch right now."
Miasolé officials didn't return calls requesting comment.