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Summary:

As we all know, cell phones no longer just make calls — many act as web devices, navigators, cameras, music players, game consoles, and in weirder circumstances carpenter’s levels and whoopee cushions. But as consumers have called on their phones to do more than ever before, […]

Solarmer1As we all know, cell phones no longer just make calls — many act as web devices, navigators, cameras, music players, game consoles, and in weirder circumstances carpenter’s levels and whoopee cushions. But as consumers have called on their phones to do more than ever before, the demands on those handsets’ batteries also have increased, and quickly used battery life has become a common source of grumbling. That sticking point provides an opportunity for Solarmer. The El Monte, Calif.-based startup hopes to extend mobile phone battery life with strips of organic thin-film solar plastic, which it plans to bring to market in the next 18 months.

Instead of pursuing solar panels on rooftops and ground-mounted solar farms, Solarmer is targeting new consumer-electronics applications for its plastic solar panels, starting with cell phones and charging-enabled laptop bags. While this isn’t a new idea — several solar manufacturers like Konarka Technologies and G24 Innovations already offer solar chargers and bags — Solarmer hopes it can boost what’s a niche market today with organic thin-film plastic that it claims can convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently than its competitors, with a lower manufacturing cost.

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The company in July announced that its plastic solar cells and panels, which were originally developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and combined with some technology licensed from the University of Chicago, had achieved world record conversion efficiencies. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory certified a 1-square-centimeter cell at 6.77 percent efficiency, and the Newport Corp. certified a 6-square-inch panel at 3.9 percent efficiency. Dina Lozofsky, vice president for strategic asset management at Solarmer, said the company expects to reach 4 percent efficiency by the time it launches its first product, with manufacturing costs of less than $1 per watt.

The films won’t boost battery life very much: One hour of charging in the sun would give customers an extra 8 to 10 minutes of talk time, Lazofsky said, adding that the film also would trickle charge the phones — albeit at a slower rate — in indoor light. But the company expects the pieces of film, which will attach to phones’ backs, to start at only $2 to $5 per phone, then drop from there. At that price, Solarmer believes, the films will sell.

The company also thinks its panels’ appearance will give it an edge. The films can be cut into any shape and size, and can be made in different colors including blues, greens, pinks and reds, though some colors convert sunlight more efficiently than others, Lazofsky said.

Solarmer3Solarmer already has won some backers for its technology. Since it was founded in 2006, the company has raised $10 million from founders and partners, and it’s using the money to build a pilot plant expected to start up in the first quarter of next year. The pilot factory, expected to have a production capacity of 1-5 MW, will begin producing a small number of panels for sale by the end of 2010, Lazofsky said. Solarmer plans to enter full-scale production by the first quarter of 2011, and is seeking a second $10 million round to help build that first commercial factory.

But Solarmer has some challenges to work out first. Perhaps the biggest of these is the short lifetime of its panels. That’s long been a problem for organic-photovoltaic technologies, which tend to last “at most, a couple of years, and at worst, a couple of hours,” said Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst at U.K.-based research firm New Energy Finance. In addition, it has proven difficult to encapsulate films on flexible substrates, such as plastic, to keep air and water away from them, she said.

Right now, Solarmer’s panels degrade to about 80 percent of their performance after about a year, falling short of the 18 months that potential customers have said they want, Lazofsky said. Solarmer is looking for partners to help improve its encapsulation so that it can reach that goal, she said, adding that while solutions are available today, they are cost-prohibitive.

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The panels will have to come very cheaply to justify their small boost in talk time, said Chase, who expects organic PVs for consumer electronics to remain a niche market. “It’s the same market niche G24i is after, and Konarka’s been trying to get there for years,” she said. “It’s probably further off than it looks.”

Solarmer has its eye on a potentially bigger market, as well. In three to five years, the company hopes to expand from consumer electronics to building-integrated PV. It’s developing transparent solar films that could generate power from windows, Lazofsky said. Still, windows last longer than cell phones, and the company will have to significantly expand its panels’ lifetime to tap into that market.

Images courtesy of Solarmer, the bag and phone are artist renderings, not photos of actual products.

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