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Start-up with new way to process silicon gets $20 million

Canada's 6N Silicon says it can process silicon cheaper than normal. It could help with the shortage.

6N Silicon, a Canadian start-up that says it has coined a method for producing silicon on the cheap, has secured up to $20 million dollars in second-round funding. The money will be used to pave the way toward mass production.

Getting adequate supplies of silicon has been a challenge for the solar-panel world. A shortage of silicon caused prices of both silicon and solar panels to soar upward in 2004 and the shortage continues. In 2006, solar-panel makers for the first time bought more silicon than chipmakers. Both fields have used the same type of silicon--electronic-grade polycrystalline silicon--which is very pure and expensive to produce.

6N Silicon has found an improved separation technique to make solar-grade silicon that it says uses 10 percent of the energy utilized in the traditional vapor deposition techniques. The equipment costs around one-tenth of that conventional process, according to 6N Silicon, and capacity can be added three times faster than normal, David Dunnison, vice president of business development, said in an interview.

"Our solar-grade silicon will be significantly less expensive to produce," he said. By lowering the cost of the material, 6N Silicon aims for solar energy to reach grid parity. "We can't do it alone, but this will be a substantial contribution."

Leveling the price playing field would make solar energy a competitive alternative for everyone.

The second round of financing was led by Good Energies. By the end of the year, 6N Silicon hopes to have a manufacturing plant in place in Toronto, near its headquarters, and to start production.

The market for solar-grade silicon is $6 billion to $7 billion, according to Dunnison, and is growing quickly. Around 30 companies make silicon in nontraditional ways. Material researchers around the globe are trying to find alternative materials to replace silicon with, since it might become scarce.