The Department of Energy has awarded so many loan guarantees to solar companies this week, it’s getting difficult to keep track. The latest, announced Friday, is a $150 million loan guarantee to 1366 Technologies, a startup that innovates around silicon wafer production.
Silicon wafers are the heart of traditional solar cells, which make up solar panels and convert sunlight into electricity. The traditional process to make silicon wafers is to melt the silicon into ingots, which are then cut to create blocks. A sawing machine slices the block into thin wafers. This sawing process can create silicon sawdust that becomes waste, and up to 50 percent of the silicon can go to waste in the process. The saw often requires frequent replacement, and the wafers need to be carefully removed from the slicer in order to avoid chipping and breakage.
1366 thinks there’s plenty of room for innovation in this process, particularly because silicon wafers can account for about 50 percent of the cost of making solar panels. The company’s technology can eliminate some of the many steps and wastes that take place in wafer-making process.
The most promising of its innovations is that 1366 has developed a process to make wafers directly from molten silicon, which is kind of like making sheets of glass. CEO Frank van Mierlo told us in an interview last year that the company’s process can cut manufacturing costs by as much as 80 percent and he thinks the manufacturing cost can still be lowered by 50 percent by the time the company starts shipping wafers. “We can get twice as [many] wafers per pound of silicon. Our process is faster: one step instead of four steps,” van Mierlo said.
1366 says it will use the DOE loan guarantee funds to scale-up this production process in its first two factories: a 20 MW plant in Massachusetts that’s supposed to be online by 2013 and a larger, 1 GW factory that will go under construction in 2013 in a location yet to be determined.
1366 has already raised $46 million from investors including GE Energy Financial Services and venture capital firm VantagePoint Capital, and also scored a $4 million grant from the DOE’s high-risk, early-stage ARPA-E program. 1366’s technology is based on research by Ely Sachs, the company’s CTO and an MIT professor. Sachs co-founded 1366 Technologies with van Mierlo.
The loan guarantee for 1366 is the fifth announced by the DOE this week. Three other awards went to solar power plant developers and one to a solar manufacturer this week. The loan guarantee program has supported 15 solar projects so far, including both solar power projects and solar manufacturing innovation. Through the loan guarantee program, the DOE promises to pay back loans if borrowers can’t and that usually means better rates for the winners and sometimes means loans from the Federal Financing Bank.