How Private Collaborations with U.S. Labs Help Solar Start-ups

published: 2012-03-22 15:36 | editor: | category: Analysis

By D.A. Barber

Private collaborations with R&D at the many national energy labs in the United States aren’t new, but they have been stepped up. That’s because the labs are not purely governmental, industrial, or academic, so the type of research the labs do includes applied, commercial, and basic, respectively. The United States government’s energy labs offer their research and funding through a recently stepped-up “technology transfer” process that allows private companies to use the research and technologies to speed-up the commercialization of any new technologies that can lower the cost of PV panels.

In February 2012, DOE announced another $12 million in funding to speed solar energy innovation from the lab to the marketplace through the Energy Department’s SunShot Incubator program to support “advancements in hardware, reductions in soft costs, and the development of pilot manufacturing and production projects”. According to the DOE, Nearly forty companies have participated in the Incubator Program and these investments have resulted in $1.6 billion in private sector support.

It is just such a “technology transfer” agreement that is currently allowing solar start-up Ampulse Corporation to use research from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Ampulse, which has been working on a pilot project since 2008 at NREL and is still in “start-up” mode, has already raised over $9 million in venture capital funding. The company has also won the Federal Laboratory Consortium's (FLC) “Excellence in Technology Transfer” 2011 National Award for the commercialization of “Flexible Thin-film Solar Photovoltaics on RABiTS”.

Ampulseis trying to solve the problem of the wasteful process currently used to produce refined silicon for PV panels. Nearly half the cost of making PV panels is spent during the production of the silicon wafers so manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to reduce the expensive of crystalline silicon processing technology, which can be complex, wasteful and incredibly energy intensive. And consider this: almost half of the refined silicon is lost as dust during the wafer-sawing process that produces the ultra-thin wafers needed for today’s PV panel modules. To solve this problem, wafer producers have tried a variety of methods that produce crystalline silicon wafers that don’t require this “cutting down to size” in order to save money and reduce to total cost of the PV modules.

Government Lab Meets Private Developers

NREL scientists had developed a “hot-wire” chemical vapor process where gas molecules are broken apart and deposited onto the wafer using a technique that requires a much lower temperature - and so less energy - than needed to make the wafers the old fashion way. As the hot filament breaks down the gas, layers of silicon can then be deposited directly onto the substrate. But what the NREL scientists needed was a cheap substrate material. Meanwhile, their government colleagues at ORNL had independently developed a “rolling-assisted biaxially textured substrate” (RABiTS) process in the mid-1990s for epitaxial growth of superconducting materials using crystallographically textured metal-foil substrates. And Venture capitalists from Battelle Ventures and Innovation Valley Partners where looking for a use for the textured metal foil this new process produced.

It turned out that the metal foil from RABiTS had the right crystal structure to hold the silicon atoms into the proper position for the silicon to develop and grow into usable PV material. NREL and ORNL combined the technologies to produce silicon layers through “epitaxial growth” on the metal foil. Valley Partners and Battelle Ventures were excited enough that they joined into a development deal with the two federal labs and formed a new company called Ampulse Corporation in 2008 that they capitalized with $1 million in seed financing specifically to develop the government’s technologies to perfect the chemical vapor deposition process and grow silicon on RABiTS foil.

Ampulse entered into a $500,000 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with NREL and ORNL, as well as receiving $900,000 from DOE's Technology Commercialization and Deployment funds.

The company has been working on a pilot production line in NREL's Process Development Integration Laboratory (PDIL) in Golden, Colorado, a research site where solar companies can come and test their prototype materials and manufacturing processes. Ampulse’s process goes directly from pure silicon-containing gas to a epitaxial silicon film 10 microns or less on the metal foil, thus bypassing the growth and sawing phase to ultimately save energy and refined silicon wasted in the old wafer-based PV cell process. Unlike many other thin-film technologies where multi-junction cell architecture must be used to achieve incremental improvements in efficiency, Ampulse utilizes a simple single-junction cell architecture. If the testing works out and can produce efficient PVs at a low cost, the next step for Ampulse will be to establish a full-sized manufacturing plant that can accommodate the huge rolls of metal foil needed to produce the silicon film.

Meanwhile, Ampulse is already marketing the PV cells on their website. According to the company, the N-Epitaxial silicon can be tuned to a thickness to achieve “a range of efficiencies from 12 percent to 18.5 percent, packaged into a flexible and lightweight module form factor, and at a fraction of the cost for traditional c-Si wafer-based PV products.”

R&D Collaborations with the U.S. Government

Private collaborations with research and development R&D at the many national energy labs in the United States is a great asset for start-up solar companies and is allowed to happen because the labs are not purely governmental, industrial or academic, so the type of research the labs do includes applied, commercial, and basic, respectively. This is particularly true with the launch of the SunShot Initiative, where DOE has challenged researchers to lower the cost of solar energy by two-thirds to $1 per watt installed.

The funding opportunity announced in February has an April 9, 2012 application deadline and builds on the SunShot Incubator program’s history of successful partnerships. Since 2007, DOE has funded $60 million through the Incubator Program. 

California's Solar Junction developed a high efficiency multi-junction PV cell for the high concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) market with support from the Incubator program and North Carolina-based Semprius received a $3 million from the Incubator in 2009 to develop HCPV modules for use in utility-scale installations. Colorado-based PrimeStar is one example of a company that transitioned NREL’s cadmium telluride solar technology to commercial production. GE recently announced a $600 million investment in the company and the construction of a large-scale manufacturing plant in Colorado.

These national labs receive research and development funding from Congress, which is used for a variety of research programs in different technology areas. The concept of “technology transfer” was added to all the different laboratories to help “enhance the chance of commercial impact and societal benefit justifying the taxpayer investment in the laboratories’ research and other activities.” In addition to federal funding, the laboratories - especially those that are market focused, such as NREL - are open to outside researchers and continue to work closely with private partners to do proprietary work.

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