Gases can be sexy investments.

Chemical company Voltaix has raised $9 million from Novus Energy Partners and is getting co-founder of Norwegian solar company REC on its board of directors.

Voltaix, based in Branchburg, N.J., develops chemicals for making semiconductors and solar cells. The gases, such as germane and silane, are chemical precursors for creating semiconductor layers in solar cells.

"The company is playing in a core space. What they provide is key" for solar cell manufacturing, said Reidar Langmo, founding partner and CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Novus. Langmo left REC, which makes silicon, wafers, solar cells and panels, in 2007.

The investment is the first in the solar sector for Novus, which also has put money into lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems in Watertown, Mass., plug-in hybrid electric carmaker Bright Automotive in Anderson, Ind., and all-electric carmaker Think in Norway. Langmo owns a Tesla Roadster and a Think City.

Founded in 1986, Voltaix, a private company, plans to use the money to boost its manufacturing for both the chip and solar sectors. It was only about a year ago when Voltaix said it had raised $12.5 million from Intel Capital.

Voltaix counts on the chip industry for 70 percent of its business. The thin film segment accounts for 25 percent and focuses primarily on amorphous silicon solar cell production, said Matthew Stephens, chief operating officer of Voltaix. The remaining 5 percent includes chemicals for making crystalline silicon cells.

Voltaix executives say they are keen on developing new materials for boosting thin film's ability to convert sunlight into electricity. This improvement on efficiency is particularly important for amorphous silicon thin films, which critics say lack the necessary efficiency to attract buyers (see Amorphous Silicon: Losing the Shakeout?).

Most of the solar panels on the market today have efficiencies that fall between 10 and 20 percent. Amorphous silicon panels that have been rolling out of factories have reached 9 percent efficiency.

There is a growing number of amorphous silicon startups worldwide, thanks partly to factory equipment developers Applied Materials in Santa Clara, Calif., and Oerlikon Solar in Switzerland.

Both companies have developed a set of factory tools for manufacturing amorphous silicon solar panels in recent years. The offerings make it easier for new entrants in the solar business to start producing solar panels. Companies that develop other thin film technologies by using cadmium-telluride or copper-indium-gallium-selenide typically design their own factory tools.

Voltaix is mostly mum about its customers because of the nondisclosure agreements it has signed with them, Stephens said. Stephens named United Solar Ovonic as one of his customers. Thin film developer XsunX announced last year that it had inked a supply agreement with Voltaix. Since then, XsunX has announced that it would not pursue internal production of amorphous silicon thin film manufacturing and would outsource that instead.

Voltaix faces no shortages of competitors, including The Linde Group in Germany, Air Products in Lehigh Valley, Penn., as well as startup Sixtron in Canada.

Photo: Reidar Langmo, courtesy of Novus Energy Partners