After years in R&D and pilot production mode, Solarion plans to start commercial production with a factory line in 2010 that could churn out more than 10 megawatts of thin-film panels per year.

The German company, which develops copper-indium-gallium-selenide cells using plastic instead of metal backing, is looking at setting up the production line in Leipzig, where the company is based, said Stefan Nitzsche, a spokesman for Solarion, in an email.

Solarion currently runs a pilot production line capable of producing 200 kilowatts of CIGS cells per year, Nitzsche said.

Solarion has come a long way since the company's start in 2000. It produces its thin films in rolls, using its own ion-beam assisted deposition (IBAD) technology to lay down the CIGS materials onto a sheet of polymer.

The company said its technology addresses the challenge of making solar cells with plastic, which can't withstand high temperatures during production or while under the sun. Using the IBAD tool also creates cells with even quality, Solarion said.

Using plastic, ideally, should cut manufacturing cost as well. Most other CIGS thin-film developers are putting their solar cells on glass or metal foil – they are likely to cost more. The glass, being heavier, also would cost more to ship.

The best cells Solarion could produce could convert 13.4 percent of the sunlight that fall on them into electricity, a result that was verified by the Fraunhofer Institute of Solar Energy Systems.

The average efficiency of the cells from its pilot line is lower, but still more than 10 percent, the company said. The standard cells are larger than the test cells submitted to Fraunhofer.

Solarion expects solar panels from its commercial line to have 8 percent to 10 percent efficiency, Nitzsche said.

A fellow CIGS-on-plastic developer, Ascent Solar Technologies (NSDQ: ASTI) in Thornton, Colo., also is rolling out solar panels with similar efficiencies.

Ascent began pilot production earlier this year, and panels from that line could achieve 10.4 percent efficiency, the company said in July. The average efficiency hovers around 8 percent to 9 percent, the company added. Ascent plans open a 30-megawatt factory in early 2010 (see Ascent Solar Makes CIGS on Plastic).

Solarion hopes to tackle two market segments. It plans to encase its CIGS thin films in glass for rooftop or ground-mounted solar energy systems. It already has posted product specs for this type of solar panels, labeled SOL100GG.

The company also is marketing its flexible thin films to building material makers.

The building material market is tiny but poses a great opportunity. More roofing material makers are launching products embedded with solar cells.

Earlier this week, Dow Chemical said it plans to launch roofing shingles with CIGS cells from Tucson, Ariz.-based Global Solar Energy in 2010 (see Dow to Roofers: Our Solar Shingles Are Coming). Global Solar makes its CIGS thin films with stainless steel backing.

Johns Manville, another major roofing material maker in the United States, has a deal to buy amorphous-silicon thin films from Rochester Hills, Mich.-based United Solar Ovonic and assemble them into its termaplastic polyolefin (TPO) roofing membranes (see Roofing Giant Johns Manville Enters Solar Market).

Solarion raised its first round in 2002 and added two more rounds since, including the most recent one in 2008. Nitzsche declined to disclose the amount. In 2003, it began to build its pilot production line and later did some research and development work for the European Space Agency.