Applied Quantum Technology (AQT) has lined up a customer who plans to assemble AQT's solar cells of copper, indium, gallium, sulfur and selenium into panels for an installation in Mexico. 

Unlike competitors who use similar compounds, AQT will be rolling out cells in the familiar square shape of conventional crystalline silicon cells.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based AQT plans to announce its first customer, a Chinese company with a factory in the United States, in a few weeks, CEO Michael Bartholomeusz told Greentech Media.

The company, founded in July 2007, plans to set up production next year and begin shipping to the customer in the second half of 2010, said Bartholomeusz, who declined to say more about the customer or project.

AQT would have an initial factory capacity to produce 15 to 20 megawatts of solar cells per year. The company also is considering building a factory in China.

The startup began its technology development by fabricating the simpler copper, indium and sulfide (CIS) cells. Some companies, such as Sulfurcell in Germany, are making CIS cells.

Bartholomeusz said CIS cells typically can't achiever the same high efficiency as cells that use copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), which is the alloy used by startups such as Nanosolar, MiaSolé and Solyndra. But AQT isn't ready to move from CIS to CIGS yet, said Bartholomeusz. So the company will be rolling out cells with both sulfur and selenium next year, followed by CIGS cells, he said. Germany-based Johanna Solar Technology also makes cells with all five semiconductors – it takes copper, indium and gallium and put them through gases containing sulfur and selenium to form the desired cell structure.

AQT is employing a more unusual strategy than many of other CIGS companies.

While its peers such as Nanosolar, MiaSolé and Solyndra are producing cells and then turning them into panels for sale, AQT wants to be a cell provider only. Not only that, AQT plans to produce CIGS cells in the same shape and dimensions as conventional crystalline silicon solar cells.

This approach would enable the company to market its product to makers of crystalline silicon solar panels, which dominate the market today. Crystalline silicon solar panel makers could easily tweak their equipment to use AQT's cells, Bartholomeusz said.

This way, the company can skirt some of the manufacturing and marketing challenges faced by other CIGS companies, Bartholomeusz said.

"Competitors want to build their own freeways. We are simply building an onramp and launch into an incumbent's freeway," he said. "We don't have to re-invent the wheels from the time-to-market standpoint."

Why would silicon companies opt to buy AQT's solar cells, especially when the costs of crystalline silicon cells have fallen about 40 percent over the past year for large manufacturers such as Q-Cells in Germany?

AQT aims to sell its cells at a good discount. The company says it already can offer prices that are 10 percent to 15 percent lower than multicrystalline silicon cells, Bartholomeusz said. The company expects to produce cells at 60 cents per watt when its first production line is in full swing.

The savings would be greater, up to 40 percent, in several years when AQT boosts production and cuts its manufacturing costs, he added. Manufacturer's prices for crystalline silicon cells have been reported anywhere between  $1.25 per watt and $1.50 per watt these days.

By around 2014, solar panel makers could produce their products at around 50 cents per watt by using AQT cells, Bartholomeusz said. By that time, AQT also expects to have 1 gigawatt of cell production capacity.

Selling solar cells at lower prices is key for any developers of thin-film technologies – which use little or no silicon. In fact, the selling point of thin film technologies, in general, is their abilities to manufacture in high volumes at low costs. But delivering on that has proved difficult to many.

Major crystalline silicon cell makers say they can produce cells with efficiencies in the mid to high teens. The world's largest thin-film maker, Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar, makes cells at near mid-teen efficiency. But it claims to be able to make them at a much cheaper cost – at 85 cents per watt.

First Solar has set the bar for other thin-film makers, who must try to beat it or at least stay not far behind.

AQT already has produced prototype cells with 12 percent efficiency. The company expects the cells that roll out of its factory next year – square cells with 6-inch sides – to achieve 16 percent average efficiency.

Of course, all these savings are projections, and AQT still has to prove that it could execute its plans. Bartholomeusz said his company can make cells quickly and cheaply by using only a reactive sputtering process, a common in the hard disk industry, to deposit layers of materials on soda lime glass. Other thin-film makers use a combination of sputtering and other methods.

The company hopes to close the Series B round by the end of this year and aiming for $20 million. AQT raised $4.75 million in 2007.

Photo of a woman at AQT's lab holding a prototype solar cell courtesy of the company.