With DOE loan, 1366 closer to slicing solar costs

1366 Technologies is in line for $150 million loan for two factories that will stress-test a dramatically cheaper solar-manufacturing method.

1366 Technologies, a start-up created to make solar electricity cheaper than coal, is set to receive a loan to build its first factories, bringing the 4-year-old company closer to its goal.

The Lexington, Mass.-based company said today that the Department of Energy has offered a $150 million loan to build two plants to ramp up its process of making silicon wafers used in solar photovoltaic panels. The loan is a conditional commitment where the company needs to meet certain operational targets, according to a representative

Silicon wafers at 1366 Technology's lab. Martin LaMonica/CNET

With the loan, 1366 Technologies intends to build a plant in Massachusetts scheduled to open in 2013 which will make wafers at a rate of 20 megawatts a year. In 2013 it plans to start construction on a second 1,000-megawatt facility in a location that has not yet been decided.

By producing at larger scale, the company will seek to eliminate technical risk from its process. Both locations are projected to create 400 jobs in total.

The loan offer is big step forward for the small start-up and a potentially significant advance in lowering the cost of electricity from the sun.

1366 Technologies was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007 to commercialize a series of techniques developed by professor Ely Sachs to lower the cost of solar power. Each is aimed at manufacturing solar cells from polycrystalline silicon, the material used in most solar panels today.

Its most significant advance is called Direct Wafer manufacturing , where silicon wafers are made directly from molten silicon, a streamlined process the company says dramatically lowers production costs. It also developed techniques to incrementally improve the efficiency of silicon cells , such as adding texturing to the surface to trap more light.

In the traditional solar-industry supply chain, companies make silicon which is cast into ingots. Those ingots are then sawed into thin wafers, treated, and then placed together on a solar panel. The Direct Wafer process can produce industry-standard 6-inch-by-6-inch wafers without the wasted material that comes from slicing wafers from ingots.

At the time when 1366 Technologies was founded, there were dozens of solar start-ups formed to make solar cells from thin-film materials. The company's approach was unusual in that it sought to improve the existing silicon manufacturing process.

"This has always been about creating a transformational technology, one that will allow solar to become a real part of our energy supply," 1366 Technologies CEO Frank van Mierlo said in a statement. "With the support of our private investors and the DOE, we're now approaching the manufacturing stage and closer than ever to realizing the promise of our technology."

The company has raised $46 million from venture investors and corporate partners. In 2009, it received a $4 million grant from the Energy Department's ARPE-E program to pursue the Direct Wafer process.

 

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