The art, luck and risks involved in turning a new process into a viable U.S. company
The second of a four-part series.
LEXINGTON, Mass. — Away from curious visitors’ eyes, laboratory staff at a company called 1366 Technologies here are melting purified silicon in a furnace until it reaches the consistency of red-hot lava. Then they skim off wafers of silicon, the platforms for photovoltaic solar modules.
This may sound simple, but it isn’t being done in China, in Germany or anywhere else, says 1366 CEO Frank van Mierlo, one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni and technology entrepreneurs behind the startup firm.
If it works at factory scale, 1366’s process would go far toward making solar energy as cheap as coal power in this decade, he says.
Or it may not work, as van Mierlo acknowledges, although all results so far are on track. “It is really hard. It is not a zero-risk venture. We still have a steep hill to climb,” he said.
The firm’s project is a case study in the Energy Department’s search for game-changing technologies to reduce carbon emissions from power plants and motor vehicles.
DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) gave 1366 a $4 million grant in November 2009, the only grant to a solar firm in ARPA-E’s initial awards. The grant raises a seminal question: How far and how fast can a government agency push commercial innovation?
Energy Secretary Steven Chu dropped by 1366 one afternoon in November, donning a face shield for protection from the glowing silicon furnace. He praised the firm’s leaders as examples of “the innovative brilliance of Americans” who can not only compete for leadership in advanced energy technologies “but prevail convincingly,” he said.
DOE has set an ambitious, if not audacious, goal of driving the price of installed residential and commercial photovoltaic solar power modules down to $1 per watt, compared to about $3.50 for utility-scale projects, and more than $5 for commercial and residential installations.