G24i: Pioneering Dye Sensitive PV Cells & Ethics-Driven Business Models

A virtuous spiral of research, development and commercialization is taking shape as intellectual and investment capital flows into companies at the cutting edge of dye-sensitized thin-film and organic PV cell and materials development, as was seen in Part One of this two-part series on organic photovoltaic/solar cells (OPV).

While significant challenges remain and large-scale applications appear relatively far out on the horizon, smaller scale applications, such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), are already being built into a variety of electronic products. Industry pioneers, such as G24i, have begun manufacturing their first generation of products, which in G24i’s case includes a DSC-powered mobile phone charger and an award-winning “Lighting Africa” portable lamp that marries cutting-edge LED and dye-sensitized thin-film PV technologies.

Solar industry veterans who brought Solar Space public, G24i’s co-founder and chairman, Robert Hertzberg, and CEO and co-founder, Edward J. Stevenson, then began searching for a solar technology that held fast track commercialization potential without requiring government subsidies.

With the ability to operate indoors and in poor light conditions, as well as being able to produce flexible and portable form factors from relatively cheap and readily available materials, they decided that the dye-sensitized PV cell originally developed by Michael Graetzl and Brian O’Regan at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) was what they were looking for.

“Two of the most important aspects of this are: one, that our business is not based on subsidies. If we sell someone a charger for, say, US $30 in a mass market, we’re replacing this tremendously high consuming and polluting battery business. Second, we’re democratizing the renewable energy sector,” said Hertzberg.

G24i at the end of 2007 began rolling out its initial product, DSC-powered mobile phone chargers, at its spanking new 18,000-square-foot manufacturing facility set on 9.3-hectares [~23 acres] in Cardiff, Wales, where a 2.5-megawatt (MW) wind turbine will supply all the electricity the plant needs for the time being, Hertzberg noted.

The company is joining with African companies, such as Kenya’s MasterIT, to distribute the chargers locally, intent on solving the longstanding and vexing problem of providing affordable light and electricity to poverty-stricken people across Africa who have never known the benefits electricity can convey.

A Business Strategy Built Around Environmental & Social Responsibility

Looking to bring off-grid electrical power options to people in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and a still growing range of African countries, G24i in May was awarded the World Bank Group’s 2008 “Lighting Africa Development Marketplace” prize for its solar-powered LED light, which uses the company’s proprietary dye-sensitized thin-film solar cells in concert with light emitting diodes (LED) produced by Dutch lighting manufacturer Lemnis.

This year’s award, worth $200,000, was made in order to recognize products that provide the most innovative, off-grid lighting solutions for some 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack electricity. G24i is working with Lemnis to carry out further development work and set up large-scale distribution in Rwanda, the “Lighting Africa” program’s initial target country.

G24i’s business strategy of first introducing its DSC products in poor African countries where markets are undeveloped and unproven may be a risky one, but it has a compelling moral and ethical component, and it offers G24i the opportunity to test its products in difficult field conditions while helping local businesspeople create markets from the ground up. Calling them solar-powered is really a misnomer as they can convert indoor lighting to electricity as well, Hertzberg pointed out.

Hertzberg recently traveled to Amsterdam to meet with its “Lighting Africa” program partner Lemnis, which manufactures 1.25- and 3.5-watt LED light bulbs that are being married to G24i’s dye-sensitized thin-film PV cells. See prototype below:

prototype for lighting africa programWhen you’re in a room using them, “they’re as bright as a 200-watt bulb,” he commented. “Think about what this means in areas where people are burning kerosene and charcoal. We certainly are strong believers as to how to approach this revolution — it goes back to the question, ‘What does it mean to be green? How can we have the greatest impact for the greatest number of people?'”

“The LED ‘Lighting Africa’ program is just the starting point,” he continued. “We intend to move into a whole bunch of other products: We’re doing rucksacks for kids, camera cases, camera bags. There’s a whole series of products we’re working on. Ultimately, the big picture is moving from the developing to developed nations and then ultimately moving into indoor PV.”

Field Tested in Antarctica & Soon in Oceans Around the World

G24i dye-sensitized thin-film solar cells are proving themselves rugged enough to endure some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Besides enduring the rigors of operating in various African locations, the company’s DSC cells were used to generate electrical power for British explorer Robert Swan and his team during their two-week ‘E-Base Goes Live’ project in which they traveled to Antarctica. Despite poor sunlight, the cells contributed to the successful powering of satellite, digital and video conferencing and other communications equipment throughout the two-week long expedition.

The first person to walk to the North and South Poles, Swan is moving on to an educational sailing around the world project and G24i is working on sails for his craft that will have thin-film dye-sensitized PV cells embedded in them.

Hertzberg said, “The message is that…at the end of the day, all the work in the lab, that’s one thing, but if you’re talking about commercializing and tapping a huge untapped market in areas where people have no grid access at all, these are much bigger issues. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of money [more than US $60 million] to develop a revolutionary process.”

Andrew Burger is a RenewableEnergyWorld.com International Correspondent currently working out of Spain.

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