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1366 One Step Closer to Opening US Solar PV Wafer Facility

Solar silicon wafer innovator 1366 Technologies has landed new funding led by newest partner Tokayama, and is ready to scale up to a 250-MW production line ahead of an anticipated upswing in demand.

Ten months ago 1366 moved into a new 25-MW pilot facility in Bedford, Massachusetts, to nail down process and tweak equipment for its solar silicon wafering technology to take the next step toward commercialization. Five months ago 1366 inked a R&D deal with Japanese silicon producer Tokuyama with hints that it could expand to an equity investment.

Since then, the company has ramped its output from about 50 wafers per furnace per day to more than 1200 now thanks to what CEO Frank van Mierlo referred to as some "important engineering decisions" and unspecified process modifications, though he acknowledged partner Tokayama has "good insights with respect to silicon" such as unparalleled measurement of silicon impurities. Over the next year they aim to get that up to 3,500 wafers/machine/day, roughly equivalent to 5 MW worth of wafers, but the core process rate allows for more than 4,000 wafers/machine/day with some further improvements to some automation and materials handling, he said.

Typical silicon solar wafers are made by melting silicon chunks in a large quartz crucible, then cooling and forming the mass into a rectangular block and sawing out individual wafers. 1366's Direct Wafer process uses a much shallower container, forming thin layers on the surface which are skimmed off as wafers -- CEO Frank van Mierlo likened it to the icy surface formed on a wintry pond. Lasers instead of saws are then used to more precisely trim the wafers down to a standard 156 × 156 size. The end result is several process steps condensed into one, less consumables, less materials waste (kerf loss from sawing), and labor to make a silicon solar wafer at a third of the costs of traditional solar wafer manufacturing.

Once the process is scaled up onto full production lines, fully-loaded wafer costs will be just $0.10/Watt, vs. legacy wafers at $0.29/W, according to Mierlo. The process also uses a lot less energy: Mierlo cited an energy payback of a typical silicon solar panel is 20 months, but just 11 months made with the company's silicon.

The company claims its silicon wafers are translating into cell efficiencies of 17.2 percent in customer trials, based on what Mierlo called "vanilla cell architecture" (screen-printed silver on the front, aluminum paste on the back); earlier this year the company showed a 17.5 percent efficient cell made with more a complicated highly passivated backside. (That 17.2 percent also is around the range of other recent industry marks for standard-sized multicrystalline solar cells.) The company has had successful customer trials with four customers so far, he added.

The next steps are to achieve a "copy exact" transition to a second furnace and then move forward with the bigger plan: start building out a 250-MW production factory (~60 million wafers/year) sometime in 2014. For that the company will pool this latest round of funding, plus about $50 million of the $150 million DOE loan guarantee in its back pocket matched dollar-for-dollar with private investment (the company has accumulated roughly $62 million in equity and VC backing), and some of its own cash ("we are cash-flow-positive this year," Mierlo said). The company is exploring sites across the U.S. including vacated buildings that might be a more cost-effective route, but it's still searching for one that meets all its criteria of low costs and electricity prices and strong local government support and worker quality. Most silicon solar cells are made in Asia now, but Mierlo reiterated he wants to see this silicon wafer factory here in the U.S. both to protect the company's IP and because "I personally believe that the U.S. can compete in manufacturing."

With the gap starting to narrow between solar manufacturing capacity and end demand -- general industry consensus is that global solar demand will surge to 40-45 GW next year, and maybe 50-60 GW a year or two beyond that -- silicon prices are showing signs of recovery again, and that makes 1366's low-cost position even stronger, according to Mierlo. "Even at today's low silicon prices we have a competitive offering." And inserting a drop-in higher-quality silicon wafer will help lay the foundation for higher-efficiency cells, he noted. And higher conversion efficiency is one of the first and best ways to lower total system costs.

Lead image: Jet-stream against a surreal fiery sun, via Shutterstock

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