Pushing the Envelope: Renewable Energy R&D Bolstered Through Public-private Partnerships

The scientific community has long recognized the value of exchanging information about new discoveries. Thanks to the development of high speed, high power computing and telecommunications networks, basic and applied scientific research and development today is more of a collaborative venture than it’s ever been.

With energy and climate change in the spotlight, efforts to develop efficient, low-cost means of using renewable energy are becoming more and more important. To that end, government, academia and industry have joined forces to optimize their collective physical, financial and intellectual resources in Colorado in an organization called the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory.

Formally established in February 2007, the Collaboratory joins the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University (CSU) and the University of Colorado, Boulder. In April the Collaboratory executive board announced the establishment of a basic and applied “virtual” research center, the Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion (CRSP, pronounced “crisp”).

Paul Nelson, managing director of CRSP explained that “CRSP is focused on 3-G, third generation solar technology…The basic idea is pushing the envelope on efficiency and cost when it comes to producing electricity from PV-photoconversion for production of solar fuels, reduction/oxidation processes into fuels such as hydrogen, a lot of work with nanostructures, etc.”

Membership in the Collaboratory gives private sector companies access to university and jointly conducted R&D. To date, fourteen companies have signed up, including Applied Materials, Konarka, Lockheed Martin, Sharp and SunEdison, as well as promising homegrown start-ups such as Ascent Solar Technologies, Evident Technologies, Motech Industries and QuantumSphere.

Promising R&D

Developing multi-junction PV cells and multi-exciton generation, and incorporating PV cells within flexible, organic thin-film substrates, are areas of R&D originally undertaken through public-private partnerships that are now approaching commercialization.

“The PV market is still 95% silicon, and they’re not waiting for thin film to beat their brains out…It’s an issue of just how thin you can cut the wafers to get more panels, different technologies in terms of doping continue to get better and better efficiencies. At the same time, down the line, thin film and organic PV are inherently cheaper to manufacture. CIGS (Cadmium Indium Gallium Selenide) flexible substrates like those from Ascent lead to all kinds of interesting applications in the BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaic) area,” said Carl Koval, CU Boulder’s Energy Initiative Faculty Director.

Konarka is doing pioneering work with organic dye sensitive cells (DSC), Nelson added, “developing thin-film PV with organic substrates…some real cutting edge ideas, such as MEG — multiple exciton generation, where multiple currents can be generated from the capture of a single photon.”

Single junction Cd-Te PV cells on glass with conversion efficiencies of 11-12% — commensurate with silicon cells — are now being produced reliably and in quantity, noted Professor Walajalabad Sampath, whose collaborative research with students at CSU’s Materials Engineering Lab led to the creation of AVA Solar, a company in the midst of developing a 200-MW capacity production facility in northern Colorado.

“Theoretical efficiency is around 29% for single junction cells, and then if you go to multiple junction cells, which can absorb different frequencies of light, it can go up to 48%. Double the efficiency and you halve the cost is the general rule.”

In its inaugural round of R&D funding, CRSP’s executive board in October announced they allocated more than US $1.1 million in shared research grants for 12 projects chosen from 31 applications. Eight of the 12 will receive US $100,000 with the rest receiving between US $75,000 and US $99,818 for a period of up to two years.

Among the award winnerss, a team from NREL and the Colorado School of Mines are looking into “Integrated Electrical and Optical Characterization of Silicon Thin Films.” In the photon conversion to liquid/gaseous fuels space, researchers at CSU and the University of Wyoming are investigating “Optimizing Cu2ZnSnS4-based Photovoltaic Devices for Thin Films.”

A team at CU Boulder was awarded $100,000 to pursue research into “InVitro Evolution of RNA-Inorganic Catalysts for the Conversion of CO2 to Alcohols.” In the nanotechnology space, an NREL and CU team is researching “Group IV Quantum Dots for 3rd Generation Photovoltaics.”

“Exploring the fundamental nature and performance of advanced photoconversion materials and experimenting with new approaches are essential if we are to greatly increase the efficiency and lower the cost of solar photon conversion and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels,” commented Art Novik, the NREL senior research fellow who serves as CRSP scientific director.

Funding Collaboratory R&D

Governed by a 30-strong executive board, 20 of whom hail from the private sector, the Collaboratory is working on establishing three other virtual R&D centers that will be dedicated to energy efficiency, carbon management and wind energy, as well as the Solar-TAC testing and development center.

All the centers are, and will be, funded through three avenues, the government, the state and the private sector, explained Paul Nelson.

Federal funding for R&D tends to be more basic and fundamental in nature. The Collaboratory is meant to facilitate access to, and improve the likelihood that researchers at the four universities will be awarded federal research grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Dept. of Energy. The state of Colorado contributes up to US $2 million a year in matching funds.

The private sector, the third source of funding for the Collaboratory, pays dues to have access to the research. Companies with 500 or more employees pay annual membership fees of US $50,000 while those with less than 500 pay US $10,000.

“Annual dues go into a shared research program, which is matched by Colorado and parsed out in grants to researchers at the four universities and NREL…As a result, they have non-exclusive rights to that IP (intellectual property).

Another conduit for the Collaboratory’s funding is through sponsored research agreements between individual member companies and one or more of the four universities. Any intellectual property that results is proprietary rather than shared.

Far Reaching Returns on Government Investment

The very real potential of public-private partnerships to stimulate and optimize development of renewable energy R&D is clearly evident at CSU, where Professor Sampath continues to pursue basic R&D into solar PV, though former students of his, as well as those of other professors, have found jobs at AVA Solar.

“We’re an incubator company on the cusp of commercializing. We’re still operating under grant, proving that we can scale up the process, and we’ve executed on that very well,” explained Russell Kanjorksi, AVA’s vice-president of marketing.

The federal Solar America Initiative grant the company was awarded in 2006 “fit perfectly with our business plan. We’ve raised a lot of private capital as well, and that’s been a nice combination and partnership. Winning that grant opened us up to consulting across all national labs to come up with a best in class solution.”

Having been the beneficiary, and seen the results, of government funding and public-private partnerships, CSU’s Sampath is keen to see such collaborative programs and efforts continue. “It took only US $100 billion to go to the moon in today’s dollars. That gave us computers, satellites, GPS, rocket propulsion systems and a host of new materials. If you look at the benefits and the returns, they far exceed the government’s investment and subsidies. Every dollar the federal government invests in R&D comes back in $4 in taxes on average over the entire life of the technology.”

Previous articleTenaska & Soltage Invest in New PV Development
Next articleKonarka Announces US $45M Investment in Total

No posts to display