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Ascent Solar to Help Power Unmanned Aircraft

Ascent Solar Technologies‘ (s ASTI) thin-film solar panels may soon be flying the not-so-friendly skies as Bye Aerospace, a startup developing jets with better fuel efficiency and lower emissions than today’s commercial and military models, said Tuesday it plans to incorporate Ascent’s panels into its first design, an unmanned hybrid aircraft called the Silent Sentinel. The companies didn’t disclose the size of the deal, but Ascent last month said it would supply Bye with panels from its current 1.5-megawatt line, indicating the contract calls for less than 1.5 megawatts’ worth of panels per year.


Aside from the solar panels, the aircraft also will include an engine and battery pack. The panels, combined with other unnamed technologies, will enhance the Silent Sentinel’s flight-time capability, lower its emissions and help it keep silent, the companies said. The aircraft is mainly targeted at military applications, including border patrol, search and rescue, reconnaissance and air control, but also could find its way into civilian applications like traffic control, pipeline and power-line inspection, law enforcement, forest-fire detection and aerial photography.

The aerospace deal is a bit of a back-to-the-future move for Thornton, Colo.-based Ascent, which was founded in 2005 by ITN Energy Systems, a group working to bring aerospace technologies into other commercial markets, including energy. But the company has been involved in aerospace since at least 2007, when the Air Force selected it to develop a dual-layered solar cell that could convert sunlight into electricity with 20 percent efficiency.

Ascent is developing a flexible panel made of copper-indium-gallium-diselenide material deposited on plastic film (see a video simulation of its process here). In August, the company said it had reached panel efficiencies of 6-7.5 percent — using single-layer cells — in trial production. While it had completed construction of a 1.5 MW production line in December of 2007 and began trials in March of 2008, Ascent planned to wait until it could consistently produce panels of 7-8 percent efficiency before ramping up.

Two months ago, the company announced it had begun full production on the 1.5-megawatt line, which suggests that it’s reached its average-efficiency target. (In December, Ascent had bragged that its best panels topped more than 9.5 percent efficiency, but didn’t release its average efficiency levels.)

Also in March, Ascent Solar began tooling its second factory, with an expected capacity of 30 megawatts. It expects to begin production there in the first quarter of next year.

Aerospace isn’t Ascent’s only target market, of course. The company is also targeting buildings. In September, the company said its panels would be integrated into products by Texsa, a Spanish roofing firm. (It also plans to supply panels from its 1.5-megawatt line for this deal, at least initially.) And in November, the company said it would develop building-integrated solar products with TurtleEnergy, a solar integrator in Linden, N.J.