German Organic Solar PV Developer Heliatek Grabs $27M

The solar PV industry is currently dominated by silicon-based cell technology, but modules made of organic solar cells are seen as one of the most promising emerging technologies that could eventually become a serious competitor. That’s the hope of Heliatek, a German startup developing solar cells using organic dyes that are chemically synthesized from hydrocarbons. The company, formed in 2006 as a spin-off from the Universities of Dresden and Ulm, announced late last week that is has raised a $27 million second round of financing led by the pan-European venture firm Wellington Partners.

Heliatek will use the funding to build an initial production facility in Dresden for its organic solar cells. The startup, which uses vacuum technology to deposit the conductive material on film substrate, says its technology will lead to efficient, flexible and extremely lightweight PV modules — as much as 40 times less than today’s conventional technology. That’s why Heliatek is starting off targeting mobile applications, such as handbags that can power cell phones, though the company didn’t say when its production facility or its first commercial products would be ready. The company also believes it can find a market in “architectural solutions” (presumably building applications where weight is an important factor) and in regions with “weak infrastructures.”

Organic solar cells are widely viewed as a possible low-cost alternative to silicon-based cells, but their biggest shortcomings to date are low power conversion efficiencies (currently in the range of 6-7 percent compared with silicon-based cells in the 12-20 percent range) and poor durability, according to the Department of Energy. Heliatek says its cells have been third-party certified as reaching an efficiency of 6.1 percent, and the German solar PV developer says that will improve to 8-10 percent within three years. Heliatek, which is based in Dresden and Ulm, said the high degree of purity of the organic materials it’s using will yield longer-lasting solar cells.

In the meantime, Heliatek will be keeping a close eye on Lowell, Mass.-based Konarka Technologies, a leading organic solar cell developer.  Konarka, which raised $45 million in funding last December, has since announced sales agreements to embed its solar cells into portable electronics and consumer products and has partnered with an architectural aluminum builder to develop a building wall made of solar panels, glass and aluminum. Konarka began mass production of its Power Plastic films in October 2008 at a factory in New Bedford, Mass.   

Another player in the space is El Monto, Calif.-based Solarmer, which is developing strips of organic solar cells that could be attached to the back of cell phones to extend their battery lives. The company has achieved a 6.77 percent efficiency, expects to reach a manufacturing cost of less than $1 per watt and aims to bring its first product to market by early 2011. Solarmer hopes to subsequently expand from consumer electronics to building-integrated PV. Heliatek, Konarka and Solarmer might disagree on which of the three has the most promising technology, but they all appear to be on the same page when it comes to where the best opportunities lie for organic PV.   

Image courtesy of Heliatek.