Bill Gates-backed merger eyes solar breakthrough

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A new venture to develop next generation tandem solar cells was announced yesterday with the backing of Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a Texas energy company and First Solar Inc., the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer.

Two solar energy entrepreneurs, 1366 Technologies Inc., of Bedford, Mass., and Dallas-based Hunt Perovskite Technologies LLC, merged their businesses to create the new company, CubicPV, with $25 million in outside investments.

Their partnership takes aim at what the Energy Department and many experts believe is a technology capable of a game-changing gain in solar cell power output. The venture aims to build two-layer solar cells combining traditional silicon units with a second layer of a hybrid form of the mineral perovskite, whose unique sunlight-catching capability has solar investors in hot pursuit of the technology.

The combination of 1366 Technologies, developer of a high-efficiency process for producing silicon wafers for traditional solar cells, and Hunt Perovskite came together in a sprint beginning in January, said Frank van Mierlo, founder of the Massachusetts company and the new CEO of CubicPV. Michael Irwin, chief technology officer of Hunt Energy Enterprises’ perovskite venture, will take the CTO position in the new firm.

Van Mierlo said Hunt Perovskite is a leader in research on creating a stable, long-duration commercial perovskite solar platform, able to deliver consistent output over a 20-year cell lifespan.

“Stability. That’s the hardest part of the problem,” he told E&E News. Irwin “has done thousands of tests of chemistries and configurations,” van Mierlo added.

Asked yesterday about goals, van Mierlo deflected with a laugh. “Our new CTO will be landing in Boston soon,” he said of Irwin. “We’ll have to decide what the goals are” for the coming year.

The support from Gates’ operation, First Solar and a unit of the Hunt family’s energy enterprises “is a big endorsement of what we’re doing,” van Mierlo said.

Van Mierlo and his company have been on breakthrough thresholds before. As a startup in in 2007, 1366 Technologies was singled out for support by the Obama administration’s DOE because of the potential of its technique for manufacturing platforms for solar cells from purified silicon. Instead of sawing hair-thin wafers from silicon ingots — wasting half the raw material, as is standard industry practice — 1366 Technologies’ machines “freeze” wafers from molten vats of silicon and lift them onto a conveyer belt.

Its plans to open a manufacturing plant in upstate New York fell apart when the Trump administration’s DOE delayed a decision on a $150 million loan guarantee. Instead, 1366 Technologies partnered with the solar cell division of South Korea’s giant Hanwha Corp. to open a manufacturing plant in Malaysia. But competition from China solar module companies quickly doomed that enterprise (Energywire, May 7).

“I’m really proud of our team that we have managed to survive some pretty turbulent times,” van Mierlo said. “We clearly are in a pretty good place today.”

Both the Trump and Biden administrations joined the tandem solar quest with research grants.

Joseph Berry, principal scientist and hybrid solar cells team lead for DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., has noted that tandem technology jumped from obscurity to a top priority in less than a decade. “And now they’re now one of the highest-performance … systems that we know about,” he said in an April interview with E&E News.

The output gain comes from the “sandwich” configuration with a hybrid perovskite layer on top soaking up its share of the sun’s rays, and joined beneath it, a silicon cell capturing one-third more energy that would otherwise be wasted. While today’s single-layer cells are making marginal gains in efficiency, the tandem structure can potentially boost output by as much as 30%, further lowering costs, some experts say.

Berry said that if important research challenges can be overcome, the technology could be deployed within five years. “Maybe it’s an aggressive timeline, but that’s certainly the thing that we’re striving toward,” he said.

Van Mierlo said that support from the Biden administration and Congress will be key in a future decision on manufacturing cells in the U.S. or Asia.

The federal government has been a prime sponsor of breakthrough technologies as a buyer in notable cases, from aircraft to jet engines and computer chips, van Mierlo said.

“If the U.S. government would be the lead customer” for tandem cells, “that would firmly anchor the industry in the U.S,” he said. “It requires some farsighted people and bipartisan support.”

“Today, the most interesting option for scaling [tandem technology] is India,” van Mierlo said.