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Why Solar Power Needs a Manufacturing Revolution, Not Just New Materials

1366-tech-logo“Inventing disruptive manufacturing innovations is every bit as hard as inventing new materials,” says Frank van Mierlo, President and co-founder of 1366 Technologies. Solar power, if it’s going to compete on cost with coal and other fossil fuels, needs both. It’s on that premise that 1366, a developer of new machines and processes that can be easily integrated into solar companies’ existing manufacturing lines, has based its business model.

Based in Lexington, Mass., 1366 spun out of MIT in 2007 and raised $12.4 million from Polaris Venture Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners the following year. It now has the distinction of being the sole photovoltaic company selected for the first round of grants under the Department of Energy’s high-risk energy tech fund, the highly competitive ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program.

“Basically what ARPA-E has done is fund a very exciting idea,” explained van Mierlo in an interview. The idea, still a long way from commercialization, is to form silicon wafers directly from molten silicon. If successful, the technique could cut the cost of photovoltaic installations by half.

Developing a prototype and eventually scaling up the so-called direct wafer technology will be “really, really really hard,” and has been attempted, without success, for decades, he said. What makes 1366 different? The team, mostly, said van Mierlo. Referring to Co-founder and CTO Emanual Sachs, known for developing the string ribbon solar manufacturing technology that has been the key to Evergreen Solar’s success, as well as 3-D printing. “Not too many have been founders of two industries while still in the middle of their career.” Even so, he said, “Without ARPA-E, we would not be trying something this risky, and now this will be a big priority for us.”

So far, 1366 has been working on “minor tweaks that have a big impact,” as business development director Craig Lund told us this summer. The startup received its first order for a prototype machine in July using a technology that can give solar panels a rougher texture, which adds surface area, increases internal light refraction and boosts panel efficiency. Other technologies in the company’s pipeline include a grooved busbar (the metal strips that conduct electricity on a panel), which enables a panel to capture more light, and a sawing technology to cut the amount of silicon wasted in turning ingots into wafers.

While other solar startups are focusing on developing new solar materials to replace silicon, such as thin films, 1366 Technologies is betting silicon will be the predominant choice for solar tech for years to come.

“The really nice thing of working with silicon is that lots of people are working with it,” van Mierlo said. “Thousands of people are trying to make it more effective.” He likened the web of companies in this space to the development and rise of technology for personal computing, pointing to Intel in particular: “They did not invent the PC or the Internet. They needed Dell, Microsoft (s MSFT), all those other companies in order to be successful,” he said. Similarly, he said at 1366, “We hope to do our bit.”

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