Silicon Breakthrough by Mass. Firm
by Peter Behr
BEDFORD, Mass. -- The developers of a breakthrough concept for producing silicon wafers for solar power modules are opening their first production line here, saying the technology is ready to move from the laboratory to the factory.
If the transition succeeds, 1366 Technologies will be able to produce standard-sized silicon wafers -- the platform for the leading solar photovoltaic units -- for one-third the plant, equipment and labor costs of today's producers, said company co-founders Emanuel "Ely" Sachs and Frank van Mierlo. Its proprietary process for casting wafers rather than sawing them cuts waste in half.
The goal is to reach an annual production rate of 6 million wafers within a year from its $6 million, 42,000-square-foot plant near Lexington, which is planned to have 100 employees.
The company has $46.5 million in backing from U.S. and South Korean technology firms and $17 million in government support, including $4 million in Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding from the Obama administration's clean energy initiative, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
"Our technology threads the needle," said van Mierlo, the company's chief executive. "It is disruptive. Yet it enters the mainstream of a large and growing PV [photovoltaic] industry without requiring that the rest of the process be reinvented." The products from the company's "Direct Wafer" process are identical in size to commercial wafers.
Sachs said the company has achieved efficiencies of 17 percent from lab-produced wafers, matching the industry benchmark, with superior uniformity. That justifies the move to production, he explained.
Visitors got a tour of the new production plant Wednesday but did not get a look at the furnace and wafer fabricating unit that remain the secret heart of the 1366 process. Silicon bases for solar units are produced today by sawing ultra-thin wafers from silicon ingots, which are themselves formed from purified molten silicon.
Sachs, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and solar power innovator, came up with a process to cast wafers directly from molten silicon, eliminating the sawing procedure and several other steps. He uses an analogy of skimming thin, newly formed ice from a pond just as it begins freezing.
The secret: eliminating sawdust
"The legacy process is incredibly wasteful," van Mierlo said -- half the silicon ingot is consumed by the sawing. "We are at parity with [industry] efficiency, but the most important thing is, our wafers have much tighter specifications. We are removing all that manufacturing variability."
The company has produced thousands of its wafers in its laboratory near the new production facility. Sachs would not disclose the percentage of wafers that attained the 17 percent efficiency mark.
"We are getting better all the time," Sachs said. "I can't share that exactly with you. That's very sensitive information. I apologize for that. It's very encouraging. It only has to get a little bit better to be fully automated production work."
Sachs said the "aha" moment centered on a dilemma that has confronted solar silicon wafer developers for decades.
He used to teach MIT students a prominent theory of discovery holding that the basis for an inventive opportunity is a contradiction. "It's like a tension in a drama. You want this thing to do A and B, but when you make it do B better, it ends up doing A worse," Sachs said.
"People have tried for decades to cast silicon wafers into a mold" to improve production efficiency, he explained. But molten silicon doesn't want to adhere to the extremely thin molds required to make solar power units. "So the challenge is, how do you get this liquid to stick to the mold ... but then when you want the wafer, it has to release from the mold? That's the inherent contradiction people were stumbling over, and that's what we solved."
Van Mierlo said, "Now it is all about perfecting the production machines." They will use the same wafer-forming technology as the laboratory model.
Making a higher-value export
"We are putting the finishing touches now on the first automated version of the equipment," Sachs added. "That is a machine that will produce a wafer every 20 seconds."
Craig Lund, vice president of business development, said the company intends to keep a firm handle on its proprietary technology and know-how as it expands. "It's a big world and a big market, and we need partners," he said. "But we are not talking about pure licensing or selling the equipment."
The United States already is a leader in producing purified silicon. A U.S.-based process for the next step, turning out silicon wafers ready for fabrication into solar modules, would create a significantly higher-value export, van Mierlo said.
"There is no doubt that there is an industry shakeout taking place," he added, referring to headlines about clean energy company bankruptcies, product oversupply and reduced markets under pressure from low-priced natural-gas-fired power generation. The 2011 bankruptcy of California solar module manufacturer Solyndra LLC, after it received a $535 million Energy Department loan guarantee, became the poster child in Republican House members' attacks on the administration's clean energy promotions.
DOE says other ARPA-E grant recipients are achieving goals, including FloDesign Wind Turbine, which has raised $27 million on top of a $8.3 million ARPA-E grant to develop new wind turbine technology.
Others include General Compression, which has $12 million in investor support and a $750,000 ARPA-E grant for its work on compressed air energy storage; Envia Systems, recipient of a $4 million grant and $17 million in outside investment to develop high-density lithium-ion batteries; and OPX Biotechnologies, which got a $6 million ARPA-E grant and $36 million in private funding to support work on liquid biofuel development.
1366 Technologies has received approval for a $150 million loan guarantee from DOE toward the cost of building a second manufacturing plant with 300 permanent job positions.
Van Mierlo said the close attention and support from venture capital and industry partners testifies to the promise and progress of the concept. "The support from the government was crucial," too, he added. "It makes it much more likely that it gets done here."
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