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Testing Outside-the-Box Technologies at NREL

04/4/2011 4:00PMSign-up to receive press releases.

The companies make trips to NREL in Golden, Colorado, or send samples to NREL's Process Development Integration Laboratory, which has huge bays devoted to different approaches to, or different materials for, making solar cells.

"We work on specific obstacles," says Al-Jassim. "We have sophisticated techniques, especially in measurement, that these guys couldn't afford. We are their seeing-eye dogs. If this cell works, but that cell doesn't, we can tell them why that is the case. We provide the intellectual guidance on why the product isn't working up to par. We show them how they can tweak it."

Latest Incubator Partners

Four latest start-ups chosen for the partnerships include three receiving up to $1 million to develop commercially viable prototypes:

Caelux of Pasadena, California, has a way of dramatically reducing costs by slashing the amount of materials needed to produce a cell, while simultaneously boosting the conversion rate of photons to electricity.

Solexant of San Jose, California, is developing thin-film solar cells using materials that are non-toxic and in abundant supply. The cells will use copper, zinc, tin, selenide, and/or sulfur, and be deposited using an ink-printing process.

Stion of San Jose, California, has a technology that allows two high-efficient thin-film solar devices to be stacked, allowing for much better absorption of light, and hence greater power.

And one company that will receive up to $4 million over 18 months to scale up its prototype to pilot-scale manufacturing size:

Crystal Solar of Santa Clara, California, has a way to fabricate, process, and handle silicon wafers that are four times thinner than standard cells, thus using much less of the expensive solar-grade silicon.

The companies also take advantage of NREL's testing facilities, such as the Outdoor Test Facility and the Thermal Test Facility. Quality and reliability are huge issues. The NREL testing instruments can simulate the lifetime of a product by exposing it to several hundred suns of infrared, but not ultraviolet, light. That way, they know in a few months whether they can give their product a 5-year or 10-year or 50-year warranty. It gives them and their potential investors confidence that this is a bona fide product that will hold up over the years.

NREL's Keith Emery, who is the manager of the cell and modular performance team, oversees the testing of the technologies.

Without the PV Technology Incubator program, "there would be no place where wellthought-out innovative ideas could be funded," said Emery. "We look for innovative ideas that aren't ready for prime time, that aren't ready for current manufacturing, and are a little too high-risk for the venture capital community.

Almost every successful solar program started at this level, with subcontracts at NREL."

NREL, which announced last month the four companies selected in the fourth round of the PV Technology Incubator program, continues to look only for the most promising cost-cutters and efficiency-enhancers.

"Unless it has the potential of dramatically reducing cost, we're not touching them," said Symko-Davies. "You've got to be doing something that is a game-changer. The ship is sailing. Are you going to be on the ship?"


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