GE, VantagePoint Back Solar Tech Startup 1366

GE (s GE) Energy Financial Services and venture capital firm VantagePoint have joined in a round of funding of $28.4 million for solar manufacturing technology company 1366 Technologies. This is an $8.4 million extension of the $20 million round announced in October, and brings the company’s total funds raised to close to $46 million.

1366 is an ARPA-E grant award winner (the Department of Energy’s high-risk, early-stage program), and the news was announced on the morning of the event. 1366 is using a $4 million grant from ARPA-E to develop a technology based on research by Ely Sachs, the company’s chief technology officer and an MIT professor. Sachs co-founded 1366 Technologies with CEO Frank van Mierlo.

The idea behind 1366 is that while silicon wafer production has been in existence for decades, there’s still significant room for improving the process and slashing costs. The company’s technology can eliminate the many steps and wastes that take place in the common way of making silicon wafers today. Silicon wafers account for about 50 percent of the cost of making solar panels, so reducing their costs can lead to much cheaper solar electricity.

The conventional method to make solar involves melting the silicon to make ingots, which are cut to create blocks. Then a sawing machine goes to work to slice the block into thin wafers, a process that creates silicon sawdust that becomes waste. Up to 50 percent of the silicon can go to waste in the process, and there is federally-funded research underway to figure out ways to re-use the waste. The saws require frequent replacement and the wafers need to be carefully removed from the slicer in order to avoid chipping and breakages.

1366 can make wafers directly from molten silicon, which van Mierlo said is akin to making sheets of glass. The company’s process can cut manufacturing costs by as much as 80 percent. Given the continuing decline in the price of silicon, van Mierlo told us in an interview last year he believes the manufacturing cost can still be lowered by 50 percent by the time the company starts shipping wafers. “We can get twice as [many] wafers per pound of silicon. Our process is faster: one step instead of four steps,” van Mierlo said.

The company plans to make the standard-sized multicrystalline silicon wafers that are 200 microns thick and six inches square in size. Most of the solar cells made today use multicrystalline silicon wafers. The goal is to break ground a year from now and start shipping wafers in 2013, van Mierlo said.

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