1366 eyes Mass. manufacturing plant for lower-cost solar tech

1366 eyes Mass. manufacturing plant for lower-cost solar tech

Solar technology developer 1366 Technologies Inc. plans to build its first commercial manufacturing plant in Massachusetts and expects to break ground by next fall, the company’s CEO, Frank van Mierlo, said.

The Lexington-based company, founded in 2007, says it has rapidly developed a revolutionary new process for producing crystalline silicon wafers. The wafers, used to make the solar cells that ultimately go into solar panels, can be produced at one-third the cost of traditional wafers through the 1366 process, company executives said.

The ultimate goal of solar power innovation is to bring the cost of solar on par with coal, and 1366 executives believe their new process could be the most powerful tool for getting there.

With its technology ready, van Mierlo said the company can now pursue its next move, a 45,000-square-foot plant that would allow the company to produce its first commercial volumes. The company plans to choose a location for the site in Massachusetts in the next few months and expects to start construction in September 2011, he said.

The plant will take about a year to finish, and the company is targeting its first volumes for early 2013, he said. The company wants to build locally, rather than overseas, thanks to the area’s strong engineering culture and the country’s legal protections around intellectual property, van Mierlo said.

The company is able to pursue the project partly through its $20 million Series B financing round, announced in October,  van Mierlo said. The financing came earlier than expected due to the fast pace of the technology development at 1366, he said. The new wafer-making process was developed in a year and a half.

“We did not expect to make progress this quickly, and we did not expect to raise money this year. We were going to do that later,” van Mierlo said.

Executives said the breakthrough came in August, when the development team used the new process to create a 6-inch wafer, the industry standard size.

The company has developed a new piece of manufacturing equipment, the size of a dishwasher, that can convert raw silicon into wafers through a single-step process, said Craig Lund, vice president of business development at 1366. The approach would replace the costly and inefficient multi-step process that is traditionally involved, Lund said.

Wafers make up 55 percent of the cost of solar panels and are the largest opportunity for cutting the cost of solar, he said.

“This is a manufacturing innovation,” Lund said. “The goal is to produce the same product as everyone else but cut the cost of producing wafers by two-thirds, or 80 percent long term.”

The process is dubbed “direct wafer” and was invented by the company’s chief technology officer, MIT professor and 1366 co-founder Emanuel Sachs, executives said. The technology development was aided by a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The company plans to only pursue wafers – not cells or panels – and will market the wafers to makers of solar cells, Lund said. It intends to sell some wafers before the plant is built, he said, and it already has an early customer in Hanwha Chemical of South Korea, an investor in the Series B financing.

The new process for making wafers came after 1366 shifted gears in 2009, deciding against building the business around making more efficient solar cells. The company, which employs 30, has raised a total of $37.5 million to date from investors.

By Kyle Alspach

 Mass High Tech

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