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1366 Tech Raises $20M for Cheaper Solar Wafers

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Silicon wafer production has been in existence for decades, yet there is still significant room for improving the process and slashing costs. That’s the thinking behind a new venture undertaken by 1366 Technologies, which announced Tuesday it has raised $20 million to take its new technology out of the lab and into the factory.

The startup now counts Hanwha Chemical and Ventizz Capital Fund among its investors for the B round, which brings the total the company has raised since its inception to $37.55 million (the $5.15 million announced earlier this year was not part of B round). One of the new investors, Korea-based Hanwha Chemical, also will be a customer of 1366 Technologies. Hanwha bought a 49.99 percent stake in China-based Solarfun, which makes solar cells and assembles them into panels.

The $20 million is roughly half the amount that 1366 Technologies needs to build a factory, said CEO Frank van Mierlo. Over the next year, he plans to raise more money, which could be private equity, loans or prepayments from customers. The goal is to break ground a year from now and start shipping wafers in 2013, van Mierlo said.

The Lexington, Mass.-based startup used a $4 million grant from the federal ARPA-E program in 2009 to develop a technology based on research by Ely Sachs, the company’s chief technology officer and a MIT professor. Sachs co-founded 1366 Technologies with van Mierlo.

The technology eliminates the many steps and wastes that take place in the common way of making silicon wafers today, van Mierlo said. Silicon wafers account for about 50 percent of the cost of making solar panels, he added, so reducing their costs can lead to much cheaper solar electricity. The conventional method melts the silicon to make ingots, which are cut to create blocks. Then a sawing machine goes to work to slice the block into thin wafers, a process that creates silicon sawdust that becomes waste. Up to 50 percent of the silicon can go to waste in the process, and there is federally funded research underway to figure out ways to re-use the waste. The saws also require frequent replacement, van Mierlo noted. The wafers also need to be carefully removed from the slicer in order to avoid chipping and breakages.

1366 Technologies can make wafers directly from molten silicon, which van Mierlo said is akin to making sheets of glass. The company’s process can cut manufacturing costs by as much as 80 percent now, he said. Given the continuing decline in the price of silicon, van Mierlo believes the manufacturing cost can still be lowered by 50 percent by the time the company starts shipping wafers.

“We can get twice as much wafers per pound of silicon. Our process is faster, one step instead of four steps,” van Mierlo said.

The company plans to make the standard-sized multicrystalline silicon wafers that are 200-micron thick and six-inch-square in size. Most of the solar cells made today use multicrystalline silicon wafers.

1366 Technologies, founded in 2007, initially wanted to make cells and put them in panels for sale. The company started out developing ways to make solar cells that can greatly boost the amount of sunlight that is converted into electricity. The startup did figure ways to create textures in the cells that could trap and absorb more infrared light. Its researchers also found ways to print thinner metal lines on the solar cells so that more of the cells’ surface are exposed to the sun. The metal lines are like highways that transport the electricity produced by the cells. The company also uses copper to print the lines because copper is cheaper than the more popular silver.

The startup ditched the solar cell and panel manufacturing plans soon after the financial market crashed in the fall of 2008 and focused more on technology development instead. 1366 Technologies didn’t abandon the cell technologies it had developed, however. It’s been making and selling cell-patterning equipment, van Mierlo said. It’s selling the equipment through RENA, a German factory equipment supplier that has a large set of customers in Asia.

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