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1366 Tech leaping from pure silicon to solar wafer

Solar start-up 1366 Technologies is working on a technology that promises to dramatically cut the cost of solar cell manufacturing.

Solar start-up 1366 Technologies is developing a technology to convert raw silicon ingots directly into solar cells, a process that could slash solar manufacturing costs.

The Lexington, Mass.-based company, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had received a $4 million grant last fall from ARPA-E, the federal government's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to pursue the technology.

If successfully commercialized, the technology could reduce the costs of making silicon wafers, which are turned into solar cells, by 60 percent, said Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366. Its target customer: companies that manufacture solar cells.

"This can give significant competitive advantage. If anything can let us manufacture in this country, this is it," he said Tuesday.

The company is cagey on how it produces wafers from silicon ingots--which look like large logs of very pure, gray silicon--but executives say that it has already tested the process. The machine is being designed to cut out two steps in the traditional wafer-making process and use less silicon material.

Early runs have allowed it to make a wafer, which was turned into a cell with efficiency that's higher than existing thin-film solar cells, van Mierlo said. By the end of this year, it hopes to boost efficiency to the equivalent of multi-crystalline silicon cells, he added. Its plan is to start construction of a 100-megawatt demonstration plant with its Direct Wafer machines next year.

In addition to its ARPA-E-funded work, 1366 is also designing machines for improving silicon cell efficiency.

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By year's end, 1366 plans to deliver its "patterning machine," which adds a texture to solar cells to trap more light and improve overall efficiency slightly. By next year, it hopes to finish its second piece of equipment, a machine that allows cell manufacturers to put thinner wires on solar cells and use copper, rather than silver.

Until recently, the company had not discussed its Direct Wafer work, but company executives began talking about it at last week's ARPA-E Summit near Washington, D.C.