There's a (likely apocryphal) story of a demonstration by a famous solar pioneer who takes a powder material, places it into a printer toner cartridge, runs off a few pieces of paper with this material upon it, and produces a photovoltaic device.
The point of his exercise was to suggest that it's one thing to demonstrate photovoltaic activity and it's a completely different challenge for the innovation to be scalable, reliable, efficient, and cheap.
That's the challenge that a firm like NextGen Solar (not to be confused with NxgenSolar) faces in the coming months and years.
According to the CEO, Mil Ovan, NextGen uses an earth-abundant material, doesn't need clean rooms and is able to use "conductive nanoparticle self-assembly to create a new kind of solar absorber material." Many investors have learned to tighten their grip on their wallets when they hear "nanoparticle self-assembly."
It's very early days for the firm, which has all of three employees: CEO Mil Ovan, investor Len Batterson, and braintrust and CTO Richard Brotzman. Brotzman is the former CTO of Nanophase and according to the CEO, has "taken materials from beaker to boxcar -- he knows how to scale these materials."
CTO Brotzman, still an employee of Argonne National Labs, has filed the patents for the technology. NextGen and the the investors are liberating the science from the lab through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). In a brief conversation with Brotzman, he mentioned that the technology has been developed with an eye towards manufacturability.
According to an article in Chicago Business, NextGen is "aiming for at least 25 percent, and possibly as much as 40 percent, efficiency at a third of the cost." The best crystalline silicon solar cells boast a 22 percent efficiency, the best thin-film cells are in the 15 percent range, triple-junction solar cells are flirting with 41 percent efficiency and the best organic solar cells reach around 8 or 9 percent. Startup Alta Devices uses a GaAs absorber material and has reached an NREL-verified efficiency of 27.6 percent.
The article also attributes the investor, Batterson, with this gem: If the technology works, "it has a good chance at being the largest venture-capital deal ever done. It would put Chicago venture capital right on the map."
NextGen has enough challenges ahead of it without Google-, Groupon- or Cerent-type of expectations from investors with little solar experience. The firm has yet to complete its first prototype.
The startup is not revealing much about its technology, although the CEO had this to say: "It's a novel solar system that combines inorganic chemistry with organic polymer chemistry in one system." Ovan spoke of an "inorganic 3-D material with a polymer on top." Ovan said the materials are not toxic and can be deposited on glass, plastic, or foil in a non-vacuum environment at low temperatures.
The road from materials science development to competitive PV product with a low levelized cost of energy is a long one. Many firms, some no longer with us, held up similar promises for their thin-film or organic solar cell or CPV technologies. We'll keep an eye on NextGen's progress in light of their lofty claims.