Teaching High-Tech Gear New Green Tech Tricks

Here’s one way cleantech companies could cut a few hundred million dollars from their startup capital needs: retrofitting old equipment for brand-new products. Last week I talked to two companies  — AQT Solar and Planar Energy — that are attempting to do just that for thin-film solar cells and solid-state batteries, respectively. If the advantages of doing so are anything close to what these two companies claim, retrofitting gear could become a larger trend. Why not, after all, piggyback on the semiconductor industry’s path to cheap and massive production, as seen in the examples from these two companies?

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup AQT last week announced the launch of its 15-megawatt-per-year manufacturing line for copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cells. It’s a field now dominated by startups like Solyndra, Nanosolar and Miasole, who have collectively raised billions in venture capital. AQT, on the other hand, has raised only about $15 million in its two years of existence, and hasn’t needed any more. The secret to such a low-cost, high-speed move into commercial-scale production? CEO Michael Bartholomeusz told me the company is using retrofitted high-tech manufacturing gear from Intevac to make its solar cells, rather than designing and building its own manufacturing platform, as the other startups have done.

AQT’s approach uses proven equipment with a few tweaks — changing the shape of the final cell, replacing a few aluminum parts with steel parts to withstand greater heat — all at capital costs of less than 50 cents per watt, Bartholomeusz said. This is compared to what he pegged as $1 to $5 a watt for competing CIGS startups. AQT also plans to sell its cells to existing module makers for final assembly, rather than produce its own modules. Eventually, it hopes to compete with First Solar on price per watt and efficiency.

Manufacturing processes for semiconductors and solar cells already share a lot of similarities, but could the same processes be applied to new battery chemistries? Planar Energy, the ARPA-E grant-winning developer of solid-state lithium-ion batteries, is trying. CEO Scott Faris told me the Orlando, Fla.-based startup is “building on 50 years of process knowledge in the semiconductor industry” to overcome the challenges facing solid state batteries: namely, painstakingly slow vacuum manufacturing processes that have traditionally limited their size and power. Using mostly off-the-shelf semiconductor industry gear, Planar “can now build batteries like you build semiconductor devices, one layer at a time, and build these very rugged energy cores that can be stacked on one another,” Faris said.

That’s not Planar’s only differentiation: It also claims some considerable materials science advances in solid-state separator electrolytes and self-assembling nanoparticle films, and says its batteries will deliver two to three times the energy storage of traditional liquid lithium-ion chemistries.

It has a ways to go to prove its capabilities, of course. It failed to secure a $56 million DOE grant for a manufacturing facility last year, and with its $4 million ARPA-E grant and some $4 million from Battelle Ventures and Innovation Valley Partners, Faris said the company is still some 18 months from first production.

But as Bartholomeusz says, retrofitting gear from one product to make another is possible, so long as companies maintain the flexibility to adapt to new materials and processes. “If you design equipment around the process, since you’re locked into that process, your potential to upgrade your process and accommodate subsequent technology evolutions is very difficult.”

In both companies’ cases, the driving principle is to lean directly on the semiconductor industry’s methods and equipment to beat the competition to cheap, mass-producible products. However, both have yet to prove they can retrofit old gear to beat the new gear rolling out at startups, not to mention giants like Samsung and Panasonic. I’m curious to see if our readers have seen similar efforts underway by other startups or in other fields. Feel free to write me, and we’ll talk.

Related Research: Beyond the Breakthrough: Building a Better Battery Business

Question of the week

Could AQT Solar and Planar Energy be at the forefront of a new trend for retrofitting high-tech manufacturing gear?