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Good Timing: What DuPont Gains By Buying Innovalight

DuPont's acquisition of Innovalight, announced Monday, comes at an opportune time. The price of solar energy components and panels are falling quickly, and manufacturers are scrambling to cut costs in order to compete effectively. To do so, they are devoting more resources to technologies that can help them boost efficiencies more quickly than what they could come up with.

Innovalight has been taking advantage of that intensified competition, and its ability to line up some of the biggest solar cell makers in the world no doubt made it an attractive acquisition target for DuPont.

Innovalight, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., licenses the know-how of using its silicon ink to the solar cell production process. The company also sells the silicon ink, which has gotten accolades such as a R&D Magazine’s Top 100 innovation award. 

“We see a great opportunity in this (market) climate we are in,” said Conrad Burke, former CEO of Innovalight and now the general manager of the newly created DuPont Innovalight. “The thrust is to improve conversion efficiencies and to improve the overall cost structure. That’s the proposition that DuPont and Innovalight will bring together."                                                                    

DuPont declined to disclose the purchase price.

Silicon wafers deposited with its nano-size particles could boost the efficiency of monocrystalline silicon solar cells by an average of 0.8 percentage point,  Burke said. The company’s announced customers include Yingli Green Energy, JA Solar, Motech and JinkoSolar.

Founded in 2002, Innovalight has received about $6.4 million in two federal grants to support its technology development. The company considered being a cell maker, but ditched the idea when the financial market tanked in late 2008. The licensing model seems to have served it well, particularly in the age of declining pricing and gross margin for solar cell and panel makers. 

Monocrystalline silicon solar cells typically get around 17.5 percent efficiency these days, while the multicrystalline variety achieves 15-16 percent, Burke said.

The technology works for both mono- and multicrystalline silicon cells, but it yields a greater improvement for monocrystalline silicon cells, Burke said.  He said the company’s technology is compatible with an emerging technology that produces a wafer with a section of pure monocrystalline silicon structure and a section with mixed mono- and multicrystalline silicon. The technology is supposed to make it possible to produce more efficient mono-crystalline wafers at the cost of crystalline silicon wafers. Suntech Power recently announced the commercialization of this technology, though it’s one of many companies — including JA Solar — that are developing it by using a patent that expired a few years ago.

DuPont already is a big player in the solar market. It’s known for its encapsulants and other materials for protecting solar cells from moisture and other environmental damage. The company also sells pastes for forming the metal lines that ferry electrons out of solar cells. Since Innovalight’s silicon ink comes in contact with the metal pastes during production, DuPont wants to work on optimizing both so that when they are used together, they can increase cell efficiencies at greater rates, said Rob Cockerill, business manager of DuPont Innovalight.

DuPont generated over $1 billion in revenue from its solar products in 2010, and it expects to reach $2 billion by 2014.

Burke declined to divulge the silicon ink production volumes or its efficiency-gain roadmap. Innovalight previously talked about pushing the cell efficiency to over 20 percent by 2012. DuPont, too, promises that using its products (not just the silicon ink) will deliver 20 percent cell efficiency in the next two years, Cockerill said.

Innovalight served the the silicon solar market before being bought by DuPont, and that focus will continue now that it’s part of DuPont. Burke said there is no plan to target the thin film solar market in which alternative materials, such as cadmium-telluride and copper-indium-gallium-selenide are used instead of silicon.

“We will focus on the biggest market opportunity,” Burke said.

The majority of solar cells made today use silicon, and during Intersolar North America earlier this month, some silicon players sounded confident that the trend will continue in the next 10 years. 

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