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SiOnyx 'black silicon' boosts solar cells with lasers

SiOnyx raises $12.5 million to commercialize semiconductor technology which treats silicon so it can capture more light for solar and imaging applications.

Harvard University spinoff SiOnyx has raised money to commercialize a semiconductor technology with the potential to improve solar-cell efficiency and light sensors in digital cameras.

The Beverly, Mass.-based company today announced its $12.5 million series B round of funding which brought in laser manufacturer Coherent and Vulcan Capital, the venture investment firm started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

SiOnyx's black silicon process treats the surface of silicon so it can capture more light.
SiOnyx's black silicon process treats the surface of silicon so it can capture more light. SiOnyx

With the money, SiOnyx will be seeking to hire more people to commercialize its "black silicon" technology in consumer electronics and solar-cell manufacturing, CEO Stephen Saylor.

The company is developing a semiconductor process to blast silicon with a series of laser pulses in a controlled gas environment. The effect is to re-form the crystalline structure of silicon so that the surface captures more light, explained Saylor.

"It makes it almost a totally antireflective surface. Almost no light bounces off the stuff, so it's a very efficient way to capture more light in a layer of silicon," he said.

With changes to the manufacturing process that incorporate its technology, solar-cell efficiency can improve by about 1 percent. The laser treatment can also lower manufacturing costs and eliminate the need to use nasty chemicals used to treat silicon during solar manufacturing, he said.

The company intends to sell its chips to partners in solar manufacturing, consumer electronics, and other industries where there is need for more light-sensitive electronics. Its first products will be ready for consumer electronics and solar next year, but when they go to market depends on its partners, Saylor said.

Many companies have techniques to improve the efficiency of solar cells and bring down the manufacturing costs. Silicon Valley-based Innovalight, for example, has signed deals with solar manufacturers to use its "silicon ink" technology which treats silicon material so that it produces more electricity.

One of the challenges for getting SiOnyx's technology into production is the cost of changing solar manufacturing equipment, but even a small efficiency improvement is very significant.

"The history of the solar market is incremental improvements," said Saylor. "But these small efficiency increases are dramatic given the overall scale of the energy industry."