Pour yourself a silicon solar panel

Start-up claims it can create crystalline silicon solar cells with liquid, cutting manufacturing costs in half.

It's a crystalline silicon solar cell that you pour.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Innovalight says it has developed a somewhat contradictory-sounding process for creating crystalline silicon solar cells with liquid. If it works in mass production, it could slash the cost of making these solar cells by half or more, the company claims.

Innovalight essentially creates silicon nanoparticles, inserts them into a solvent, and pours the solvent on a substrate. The solvent is then extracted. What is left can sort of be analogized to a snowflake or a large sugar cube: a highly organized structure made up of tiny parts.

"We use this technique to make something that isn't much different from (traditional) crystalline silicon solar panels, except we get there cheaper," CEO Conrad Burke said. "They (the solar cells) end up in a pretty structured form."

The key is that the resulting solar cell has efficiencies--or the amount of sunlight the solar cell can turn into electricity--that are closer to crystalline silicon solar cells than thin-film alternatives such as amorphous silicon or copper indium gallium selenide or .

Crystalline solar cells have higher efficiencies than thin films. Commercial crystalline panels can convert up to 22 percent of sunlight into electricity, without concentrators. CIGS makers are initially shooting for the mid to low teens. The catch is that making crystalline solar cells is expensive. The patterning and other processes is similar to what is used in making LCD panels. Innovalight says it could conceivably cut the production price by around 50 percent or more. Many start-ups, however, had hit bumps in bringing new (albeit different) manufacturing techniques for solar cells to market.

Burke further added that Innovalight is not making photovoltaic dyes, which are liquids that can extract electricity from sunlight. While promising, photovoltaic dyes are organic and degrade over time.

Could it be used to cut the costs of LCD panels? Conceivably, but Burke said the company is solely focused on solar cells.

The company has just raised $28 million from Convexa Capital Apax Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, Harris & Harris Group, Sevin Rosen Funds (Burke is a former Sevin Rosen partner) and Triton Ventures, among others. Part of the money will be used to build a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley.

Innovalight hopes to start selling solar cells in the second half of 2009. By 2010, the company hopes to be cranking out "tens of megawatts" worth of solar cells from the facility.

The process originated at the University of Texas at Austin, but Innovalight has added its own intellectual property over the last five years.

"It is pretty novel," he said.

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