AQT: The Road to Cheap Solar Runs Through Computer Hard Drives

Solar firms like eSolar rely on computing to accurately set up and position mirrors in the deserts. But thin film solar maker Applied Quantum Technology (AQT) is looking to computers for an entirely different purpose: to adapt hard drive production machines to produce solar cells. AQT announced on Wednesday that it’s raised $10 million in funding and has partnered with Intevac (s IVAC), which makes the machines that create computer hard drives.

AQT says it can use hard drive manufacturing machines to produce cheap solar cells made out of CIGS (Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide) — a thin film solar technology that’s seen billions of dollars of investment into a handful of companies over the past few years but delivered little commercial-scale product (think Nanosolar, Heliovolt, Miasole, Solyndra). AQT calls its technology “CIGS 2.0,” and describes its secret sauce as: “leveraging the manufacturing technologies and platforms that have been field-proven in the hard disk drive industry.”

Will it work? The $10 million round from STPV Holdings — which follows on a $5 million round — is far, far less than what the company’s CIGS peers have raised. Nanosolar has raised at least half a billion dollars, and Solyndra raised close to a billion.

But three-year-old AQT won’t be designing its own machines from scratch, and says it will use the funds to set up its first manufacturing line in Silicon Valley — a 15MW production line — and start “full-scale production” over the next 12 months. The company plans to produce 50 MW next year reports CNET, but won’t be producing its own panels, and will contract with a panel-maker for that. It seems pretty clear to me that even though AQT’s technology could be much more low cost than its peers, it will still have to raise a lot more money for commercialization.