A Boston-area technology developer's bold plans to cut the cost of solar energy in half is getting a big boost from the Energy Department.
The company, 1366 Technologies, was given about $4 million from DOE's intensely competitive Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to learn how to manufacture silicon solar photovoltaic cells at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.
"We were the only one in photovoltaics who got an ARPA-E grant, and we were pretty amazed by that too," said Ely Sachs, the company's chief technology officer. "It's quite a compliment."
ARPA-E aims to promote transformational energy technologies. The photovoltaics company is among 37 grant winners, joining companies working on batteries for storing energy generated from renewable sources, electric cars, efficient lighting and biofuels from seaweed.
The company -- a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off -- plans to address what Sachs calls the "Achilles' heel of photovoltaics."
Traditional methods of producing solar photovoltaic modules with crystalline silicon involve creating a silicon ingot and sawing it into wafers.
"That's hard because silicon is a brittle material," Sachs said in an interview. "If it were a metal or plastic, you could saw through it rapidly, but with silicon it takes a long time, and you have to grind your way through."
He added, "You end up wasting about half the material as dust, which cannot be reused economically."
That process essentially doubles costs and effort, Sachs said.
"You've paid twice as much in refining capacity ... and there's twice as much sawing," Sachs said. "And you've actually lost that valuable material."
So the company aims to skip that material- and money-losing step.
"What we're doing is making silicon wafers directly in one step rather than taking refined polycrystalline silicon, melting it, making an ingot, sawing it into wafers and etching off the saw damage," Sachs said. "We're going right from refined silicon to wafer in one step: direct wafer technology."
Sachs said he could not provide many details about the technology itself, as it is still in development. But he said it differs from other efforts to solve this problem and should produce results within the ARPA-E timeline, about 20 months.
Other attempts to solve the problem include breaking silicon along natural cleavage planes, instead of sawing, and casting sheets of wafers directly from a silicon melt.
The Boston company's approach would decrease the total installed cost of a solar power system by half. It would also decrease the amount of expensive silicon material needed to make solar cells by a factor of more than three, said Craig Lund, 1366 Technologies' director of business development.
"If successful, this leveraged technology in the silicon solar value chain will slash installed system costs and rapidly accelerate the deployment of carbon-free solar power in the U.S.," the ARPA-E Web site says of the 1366 Technologies project.
"We just need to get a little bit cheaper, and we expect demand to go through the roof," Lund said. "You solve this, and you've solved one of the fundamental cost inhibitors in the entire chain."
Winners and losers
ARPA-E, which was awarded stimulus funding earlier this year, has announced about $4 million each to the first 37 recipients. And a second $100 million funding opportunity was announced earlier this month.
So far, the number of grant recipients involved in more conventional renewable energy sectors has been low. Along with 1366 Technologies' photovoltaic effort, there are just two wind projects and an enhanced geothermal project getting funding.
"There certainly is an element of choosing winners and losers," said Mary Anne Sullivan, a partner at the Hogan and Hartson law firm in Washington, which represents clients who have applied for ARPA-E grants. "It also may be that the ARPA-E grants are small and R&D oriented. To some extent, a lot of folks working on solar are about ready to go commercial."
The grant list is heavy on projects that focus on carbon capture and developing energy storage for electric vehicles and renewable energy.
"With carbon capture and sequestration, there is a strong policy interest in finding a way to use our coal resources consistent with concerns about climate change," Sullivan said. "A breakthrough on carbon capture is going to be very important, and I didn't find it all that surprising" that so many projects were chosen.
Bill Malley, a Washington-based partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, also said the limited number of certain types of projects does not surprise him.
"That type of thing goes with the territory. They're going to select projects on their merit," Malley said. "They're taking a portfolio approach that doesn't single out any particular technology or any sector but rather looks to the best ideas and promotes them."
"Because this is a competitive process, there are not going to be multiple winners in every sector," Malley said.