09 Sep 2011
MIT spin-out has developed a streamlined manufacturing process that promises to cut the cost of silicon solar wafer production dramatically.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has finalized a $150 million loan guarantee for 1366 Technologies, a Massachusetts company that is developing a potentially very disruptive tool for producing silicon solar wafers in a much more cost-effective manner.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-out, founded in the 1990s by CEO Frank van Mierlo and MIT professor – and now 1366 CTO - Emanuel ‘Ely’ Sachs, had received a conditional commitment from the DOE in June to support the full development of its process.
That disruptive process, which 1366 calls “Direct Wafer”, could slash the amount of time and energy currently needed to make the silicon wafers from which the vast majority of today’s solar cells are manufactured – and which constitutes around half of the cost of a typical solar panel.
Likened by the company to the revolutionary Pilkington float-glass process that enabled glass to be manufactured in large sizes, the 1366 approach allows a silicon wafer to be extracted directly from a melt of the material in just 20-25 seconds when scaled to full production – rather than via the energy-intensive, multi-step process used currently.
Initially developed with funding through the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), Direct Wafer is a continuous process that forms a standard 156 mm individual multi-crystalline silicon wafer from the melt – after freezing, the wafer is simply removed and laser-trimmed to size.
1366 at ARPA-E conference 2011:
In a plenary talk at last month’s SPIE Optics + Photonics conference, van Mierlo said that 1366 was currently shipping its first R&D tools, and the DOE loan guarantee should enable the company to advance the tools to support volume wafer production.
Van Mierlo added that using current wafer production it will be feasible for silicon PV to approach a cost of $0.44 per watt (peak) at best. With Direct Wafer, that cost could be cut to just $0.22, potentially making the technology far more competitive with conventional energy sources.
The dramatically falling cost of silicon photovoltaics this year has already had a major impact on the solar landscape. In his plenary address van Mierlo predicted that the industry was “going to see some tragic bankruptcies” because of the falling prices, and that many debt-fueled PV companies would disappear. That prophecy has come true almost immediately, following the demise of the CIGS solar manufacturer Solyndra, along with two other US companies in August alone.
The difference with 1366 is that by focusing on silicon it is targeting the mainstream PV market. In October last year the company announced a $20 million series B financing round including new investor Hanwha Chemical from Korea. Crucially, Hanwha had just acquired the Chinese company SolarFun, saying that it intended to become a Direct Wafer customer. Prior to the loan guarantee, 1366 had already raised a total of around $47 million in equity finance.
“With this loan, 1366 will realize its goal to make solar energy as cheap as coal while helping the US to reclaim a key part of the silicon supply chain and restore the nation’s dominance in photovoltaics,” said van Mierlo when the company received its conditional agreement in June.
The loan will play a critical role in the company’s expansion, supporting an initial commercial facility in Massachusetts scheduled to be fully operational by 2013 and employ 100 people. Construction of a much larger facility is expected to begin in 2013 and create 300 permanent positions, although the location of that second facility is yet to be decided.
• For those wondering, the “1366” of the company name represents the intensity of solar flux hitting the Earth, as expressed in W/m2.