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Start-up tries to manufacture a solar revolution

Rather than pursue radically new ideas, 1366 Technologies says it can make solar power widespread with a series of improvements to standard polycrystalline silicon solar cells.

LEXINGTON, Mass.--1366 Technologies is a 20-person start-up that's chasing an ambitious goal--making solar power cheaper than coal-made electricity--through a series of small steps.

The company on Thursday hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony here at its pilot facility plant, where its engineers are making changes to standard solar cell production to cut the cost of solar power to less than $1 per watt.

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1366 Technologies' approach of layering on small efficiency gains to standard silicon cells has received positive reviews from solar industry watchers.

It is commercializing technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by professor Ely Sachs. Sachs, now the chief technology officer of 1366 Technologies, on Thursday said that the company has a pipeline of improvements, each meant to build off the other, all while using incumbent silicon solar technology.

It's less flashy than pursuing radically new ideas, but the company projects that--with sufficient funding--it can hit its less-than-coal mark by about 2015, said President Frank van Mierlo.

"These are all basically manufacturing ideas--it's not new materials or trying to industrialize photosynthesis through some unlikely process," van Mierlo said. "It's just hammering away at manufacturing costs."

The company raised $12.4 million earlier this year on the basis of a light-capturing method. A "grooved ribbon" wire is placed below solar cells to reflect light back onto the cell that would otherwise be lost. That technology is being licensed to other cell manufacturers, van Mierlo said.

A solar furnace at 1366 Technologies' newly opened pilot plant. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

At its Lexington facility, company engineers are now testing what they refer to as "idea No. 2," using copper rather than silver-based wiring, which will improve electrical conductivity, van Mierlo explained.

Altogether, the company has four patents that it's seeking to commercialize, he said.

The Lexington plant is a pilot facility to test out the company's technologies based on polysilicon cells. The goal is to break ground on a large-scale manufacturing plant in one year for production in 2010, van Mierlo said. It will sell its cells to panel manufacturers.

To finance that expansion, the company hopes to raise another round of funding, on the order of $50 million, he said.

"The next step is an automated plant. In this industry, either you grow quickly or you will not be relevant," said van Mierlo.