[Editor’s Note: Xerox researchers have developed five green technologies they hope to bring to the market in the next year. Click here to read about a water-treatment technology, here to read about an erasable paper technology, here to read about software that could reduce energy use in data centers and here to read about a stronger, greener bioplastic.]

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center plans in the next six months to spin out a company that hopes to reduce the thickness of grid lines on solar cells, increasing efficiency by 6 to 8 percent.

At an open-house event called “Inside Innovation at Xerox” earlier this week, Scott Elrod, manager of the center’s Clean Technology Program, told Greentech Media that the group already has a solar-electric manufacturing partner that plans to invest in and adopt the technology.

“We’re starting to engage VCs and hope to have a separate company in about six months from now,” he said.

The technology, which essentially prints the thin silver lines that transfer electricity from the photovoltaic material on solar cells, sprung out of Xerox’s printing expertise.

It uses what Mark Bernstein, president of PARC, calls “sacrificial material” to stand flat and thin pieces of silver paste on their edges. Then the organic sacrificial material burns off in an infrared oven when the silver is fired onto the cells.

By making the lines narrower, less sunlight is blocked from the cells, and PARC also has developed sidewalls for the lines so that the light that would have hit those areas is reflected back onto the cell, Elrod said.

On cells with average conversion efficiencies of 15 percent, a 6 percent gain would boost efficiencies to 15.9 percent.

PARC has proved in the lab its prototype printer can print uniform lines and hopes to begin a pilot project to test the efficiency gains in wafers next year, he said.

The grid-lines project began with just a few researchers in late 2005, but the potential became apparent “pretty quickly” and PARC scaled up the project to six or seven people, Elrod said.

“We’re convinced this is a strong proposition,” he said.

It’s not PARC’s first foray into solar power.

Its researchers also developed the technology behind concentrating-solar startup SolFocus’ second-generation concentrators, shrinking the concentrators from a diameter of about 1 foot to about 1 inch and pressing groups of them into a glass tile so they are easier and cheaper to manufacture (see Solar May Get Cheaper and Concentrating the Sun).

PARC is involved in a number of projects, including a handful – like the grid-lines project – that it hopes to bring to the market within the next year.

Among those are adaptive controls that could make data centers more energy efficient, a low-energy technology that removes particles from water without using a filter and erasable paper that can be reprinted hundreds of times instead of being thrown away or recycled. Another Xerox lab, Fuji Xerox in Japan, also has developed stronger and more heat-resistant bioplastics.

“Everyone’s very excited,” Bernstein said. “It’s a little [daunting] to see the challenges that we see in the future with global warming. But if challenges are there, it means opportunities are there; there’s a silver lining. Folks are working very diligently to be able to bring exciting and relevant solutions to today’s problems to the market.”

And PARC, which began exploring greentech three and a half years ago, hopes to prove these technologies are more than just cool science projects soon.

After all, while the center thinks its science can disrupt the market, it hasn’t had a payoff yet and has supported its cleantech research using its income from other areas.

Take its agreement with SolFocus. PARC provided in-house development work and licensed its technology in exchange for an equity stake in the startup, which incubated at the center.

The equity will become valuable when SolFocus, which has raised $95.6 million in two rounds, is acquired or has an initial public offering, and the license fee will roll in as the technology progresses to market, with the amount based on how much the startup sells and how many PARC-developed technologies it uses, Bernstein said.

As for its other clean technologies, the center hopes to commercialize them and make money from them using three different paths: spinning them out into separate companies that could go public or get acquired, partnering with already-established players or providing the technology as part of a service to individual customers, Bernstein said.

And in all those cases, PARC also plans to generate value via patent licenses.

“We recognize there’s going to be a variable potential for an outcome, everything from failure to wild success,” he said. “But when we look at our models and the number of projects we have, we are confident that in the next three to seven years, we will be able to show some commercial success.”

The center has about 10 percent of its 165 to 170 researchers, or 15 to 20 people, focused on cleantech projects today, Bernstein said. Elrod added that the center will expand the group if its current projects see the success it hopes for, and said he particularly expects that the adaptive controls and water projects have “a great chance” to be successful in the next year.

But the center, which continually has invested resources from other areas into cleantech, isn’t stopping at these four projects, either.

Among other projects in the pipeline, Elrod said the center also already is exploring energy-efficient lighting, and is developing a membrane to remove carbon dioxide from the air and an electrochemical technology to convert it into biofuels.

Still, PARC plans to continue to stay focused on bringing technologies it already has developed to new greentech applications, he said.

“What’s become apparent is it really is these underlying competencies that are the basis for doing things quickly in a new field,” Elrod said. “If we were to explore all of these areas that could benefit from these four competencies, that’s already a huge portfolio of research. My vision is to see commercial success, which is critical for PARC, showing that this can work.”

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