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C3Nano: MIT Clean Energy Winner's Scheme for Cheaper Solar

For a team of ambitious chemical engineers gearing up to spin their solar cell tech out of a Stanford University lab, winning a $200,000 prize sponsored by the Department of Energy and NStar isn’t a bad way to get things rolling. That’s what C3Nano has done this week by winning the grand prize in the 2010 MIT Clean Energy Prize contest.

The inventors on C3Nano’s team — Ajay Virkar and Melburne LeMieux — have been working to develop a lower cost, more efficient transparent electrode for thin film photovoltaic solar panels in Stanford Professor Zhenan Bao’s chemical engineering lab, and according to C3Nano co-founder and CEO Jeff Sabados they’re hoping to spin out of the lab next month.

Transparent electrode film said to be 92 percent transparent with 4.8 billion carbon nanotubes. Courtesy of the Rice University Business Plan Competition.

Transparent electrodes are a basic component of many electronic screens, serving as a conductor through which electric current passes. “An average person probably looks at a transparent electrode 12 hours a day,” Sabados explained to us recently, noting applications in not only solar panels, but also in cell phones, TV screens and organic LEDs.

An alloy called indium tin oxide (ITO) is one of the most commonly used for these conductive coatings, due to its relatively high transparency and conductivity. But ITO is also inherently brittle, and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Indium’s recent price volatility and various supply concerns associated with the metal have accelerated the development of ITO substitutes.” Or as Sabados put it, indium, produced mainly from byproducts of zinc ore processing, “might become the long pole of the tent.”

Sabados says C3Nano has developed a new transparent electrode based on carbon nanotubes that’s lower cost, more flexible and lightweight than conventional materials, and that will increase the efficiency of thin film solar panels by more than 1 percent. With state of the art solar panels today, Sabados said about 20 percent of the sunlight is “absorbed, lost in the transparent electrode,” when it hits a solar panel. C3Nano aims to reduce the amount of “lost” electrons, allowing up to 12 percent more sunlight to penetrate.

In addition to its main focus in the solar industry, C3Nano also has designs on, “becoming the dominant transparent electrode in the electronic display industry,” according to the group’s project summary in the Rice University business plan competition earlier this year (check out C3Nano’s elevator pitch from that competition, below).

C3Nano isn’t the first to work on carbon nanotube-based coatings for solar cells. But Sabados said the young venture believes they can offer the tech at lower cost with better performance, and that other companies in the space, such as Eikos, will “pave the way” for C3Nano’s entry.

The first major research paper detailing C3Nano’s research into this technology will be published in July, Sabados told us. But already the group has attracted nibbles from potential backers. Co-founder Ajay Virkar commented in a statement about the MIT prize this week that each round of judging by scientists, greentech entrepreneurs, investors and policy experts in the competition helped C3Nano refine its business plan. Virkar said, “We got useful feedback that will make our business stronger and we are getting interest from people who might want to fund us.”

According to Sabados, C3Nano has begun looking for development partners, and it aims to raise $2.5 million to fund further research and development needed “to be ready to develop a pilot line.” C3Nano is hopeful that the potential for its technology to lower costs for solar and other applications will open doors for the venture. But as a startup fresh out of the lab, Sabados said, “We know it’s going to be tough.”

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