Summary:

Can cleantech companies cut millions of dollars from their capital needs by retrofitting old chip equipment to turn out brand-new products? If the advantages are anything close to what AQT Solar and Planar Energy claim, it very well could be the start of a new trend.

Can clean technology companies cut a few hundred million dollars from their start-up capital needs by retrofitting old semiconductor fabrication equipment to turn out brand-new products? AQT Solar and Planar Energy are attempting just that for thin-film solar cells and solid-state batteries, respectively. If the advantages are anything close to what the two companies claim, it very well could be the start of a new trend.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AQT last week announced the launch of its 15-megawatt-per-year manufacturing line for copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cells. That’s a field now dominated by startups like Solyndra, Nanosolar and Miasole, which have collectively raised billions in venture capital. AQT, on the other hand, has raised only about $15 million in its two years of existence. One secret to its low-cost, high-speed move into commercial-scale production, CEO Michael Bartholomeusz told me, is using retrofitted hard disk drive manufacturing gear from Intevac to make its solar cells, rather than designing and building its own manufacturing platform.

“About $2 billion has been spent to date trying to commercialize CIGS without a whole lot to show for it,” he said. “These companies, instead of being product manufacturers, became equipment manufacturers — making a platform, and then bringing costs down to make it a low-cost product.”

Manufacturing processes for semiconductors and solar cells already share a lot of similarities — but could the same processes be applied to new battery chemistries? Planar Energy CEO Scott Faris said the Orlando, Fla.-based startup is “building on 50 years of process knowledge in the semiconductor industry” to overcome the challenges facing solid state batteries — namely, painstakingly slow vacuum manufacturing that has limited their size and power. Using mostly off-the-shelf semiconductor industry gear, Planar “can now build batteries like you build semiconductor devices, one layer at a time, and build these very rugged energy cores that can be stacked on one another,” he said.

Planar is looking at up to 18 months to bring a production-scale line up and running, and AQT Solar has only one announced customer with a 2-megawatt order for its 15MW line, so both still have a lot to prove. But with money hard to come by, the recycle-and-reuse approach to high-tech green manufacturing get more traction.

(Editor’s note: Welcome to Jeff St. John as GigaOM Pro’s Green IT curator, and he’ll be bringing you lots of smart grid, green IT, greentech and energy efficiency research and reporting going forward!)

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