Sharp Teams Up with Sandia National Laboratory

Last November, we reported on an agreement being signed between one of the U.S. Government’s top energy laboratories Sandia National Laboratory and the Sharp Corporation, based in Japan. Sandia this week made a public announcement of the agreement and provided a few more details about the thrust of the partnership.

The broader partnership between Sandia and Sharp will focus on energy technologies, specifically photovoltaics and fuel cells. It will involve research and development of Sharp’s solar photovoltaic technologies, including tests and improvements on reliability, durability, calibration of solar modules, inverters, and other advanced applications. The agreement, called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), has been in negotiation since June 2004, following New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s meeting with Sharp’s executives in Tokyo to sign a MOU between New Mexico and Sharp. Sandia’s immediate focus is on portable power applications, such as the use of direct methanol fuel cells to power consumer electronics like laptops, cell phones, and PDAs. Sharp has asked Sandia to fabricate fuel cells using Sandia’s proprietary membranes and catalysts. Sandia researchers, along with researcher Akimasa Umemoto from Sharp, have begun designing the materials and membrane electrode assemblies for Sharp’s specific application target. They will fabricate and test the fuel cells during the 12- to 18-month project under conditions relevant for Sharp’s applications. Jeff Nelson, who manages the solar technologies group and is the Sandia manager of the CRADA with Sharp, said his laboratory brings “novel device membranes” to the table while Sharp brings extensive system and application level experience. He added this is also one of Sharp’s first interactions with a U.S. laboratory. “This is a stepping stone,” Nelson said. “This is one of Sharp’s first interactions with a U.S. lab and our hope is that we’re successful and that success could go into solar PV and other areas.” Solar PV will indeed be a major direction of the partnership as it progresses, according to Mark Cortez, Director of Marketing for Sharp’s solar energy division, who was contacted last November regarding the arrangement. Cortez said the depth and breadth of Sandia’s research facilities are a perfect fit for the company. “They have the ability to create test beds, constantly doing module and inverter testing,” Cortez said. “They are a great source of independent testing. When you bring something to them, you are going to get a real accurate representation of how it performs.” Among the initial solar research will be new explorations into agricultural applications for solar. All the recent growth in the solar field in the past few years, says Cortez, has been in the rooftop solar grid-tie market, but he says Sharp still recognizes rural, off-grid, remote power applications as a fertile business field. Although it is currently the largest producer in the world, there might not be very much growth in the company’s overall solar PV module output. The company isn’t expected to make any major manufacturing expansions in the short term while a raw material supply situation is putting the squeeze on solar companies all around the world. “There’s no sense in building a bigger building when you don’t have enough chairs to put in it,” Cortez said. “We recently expanded our Memphis, Tennessee, facility to 60 MW, but we will be hampered by the silicon shortage. It’s reasonable to say that we will not increase capacity, instead we will focus on development of working technology.” Cortez added that the company is excited about its prospects in bringing thin film solar products to market. He says the company has some thin film solar under development that competes with traditional silicon-based PV, particularly when factoring in the higher efficiency degradation that affects solar PV when under high temperatures. Thin-film solar technologies are gaining popularity partly because of this situation with the constrained global market for solar grade silicon, required for traditional poly- and monosilicon PV, which, collectively, represents close to 90 percent of all solar modules produced today. Cortez clarified that while the silicon situation is predominantly described as a silicon shortage, it is more accurate to say that the markets are growing faster than the supply can handle. There’s far more silicon available this year, he says, than last year and years before, but the demand curve has shot straight up faster than the supply can keep up with. It’s partly for this reason, Cortez says, that it makes sense to find and develop technology that strays away from that situation.
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