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AQT tweaks hard-drive machinery for cheaper solar

Start-up tries to use hard-drive manufacturing equipment to make thin-film CIGS solar cells, which have proved tricky to manufacture at scale.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalist last decade tried to take the solar industry by storm with cheap thin-film solar. But after billions of dollars invested, many start-ups are struggling to commercialize their technology.

Applied Quantum Technology is yet another thin-film upstart that is betting on the same core solar technology--cells made from a combination of copper, indium, selenium, and selenide (CIGS)--but is taking a different approach.


The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company on Wednesday announced that it has raised $10 million from STPV Holdings, its series A funder, and an undisclosed investor. It also said it has a partnership with Intevac, which produces machinery to fabricate computer hard drives and other high-volume electronics.

To bring down the cost of solar cell manufacturing, AQT engineers have modified hard-drive equipment to manufacture CIGS solar cells. With the funding, which adds to an initial $5 million, the three-year-old company plans to take delivery of a machine from Intevac and move into a manufacturing facility later this month, according to CEO Michael Bartholomeusz.

Many other CIGS companies, lured by the potential of lower production costs, have had to design the manufacturing equipment to make their cells, he said. As a result, many solar start-ups have needed a large amount of money to develop a product.

"I always found it a little bit curious when I have peers in the field who say they have an ultra-low cost process but it took us $700 million, 500 people, and two years--it just doesn't add up," Bartholomeusz said.

Thin-film solar cells are typically less efficient at converting solar energy into electricity than crystalline silicon but are cheaper to make. First Solar is considered the industry cost leader with its thin-film solar cells made of cadmium and tellurenium, a technology General Electric is pursuing as well.

But CIGS has proved to be complex to master in the production process. In using machinery normally used for hard-drive manufacturing, AQT has sought to simplify production. It uses only a "dry sputtering" process where bits of material are laid down in layers on a substrate. By contrast, other CIGS companies also use materials in liquid and gaseous states, explained Bartholomeusz.

In another change, it plans to make solar cells and contract with another company to manufacture the actual solar panels, which is a way to keep production costs down. Bartholomeusz said that AQT has one customer for its panels, which the company will start delivering by the end of this year or early next year.

The company expects to manufacture cells with an efficiency of about 14 percent by that time and be 30 percent cheaper than polysilicon cells, Bartholomeusz said. It anticipates making 15 megawatts' worth of cells next year.

Updated on April 7 at 9:10 a.m. PT with correction to company name and amount of planned solar cell production.