Solar glass that traps sunlight and boosts solar power

Researchers have long been hard at work in  figuring out ways for solar panels to convert more sunlight into electricity. A startup hailing from Australia, Brisbane Materials, now says it’s figured out how to do this effectively using an anti-reflective coating, and on Monday it plans to announce an AUD $5 million ($5.2 million) Series A investment to help it ship its technology to its first customers.

Brisbane Materials’ anti-reflective coating helps solar panels trap more light and the tech can boost the power output of solar panels by 3 percent, says its CEO Gary Wiseman. That means, for example, a solar panel that could produce 100 watts of energy without the coating will be able to yield 103 watts with Brisbane’s technology. Competing coating products can deliver 2 percent or less, says Wiseman.

A 3 percentage-point gain is significant not just because the panel delivers more electricity, but because the innovation could reduce the overall cost of installing a solar energy system. While you might be paying a higher price for more efficient solar panels, you can get a lot more electricity out of them, and in the end that will make the cost per kilowatt-hour of energy lower.

Whether Brisbane can deliver its coating technology at affordable prices is unclear because Wiseman declined to reveal those figures. Anti-reflective coatings are not a new idea and they are commonly found on the sheet of glass that protects solar cells in each solar panel or on the solar cells themselves.

Brisbane’s coating doesn’t go on cells but on that sheet of glass. A liquid solution containing silicon dioxide goes onto the glass and, after being heated at room temperature, forms an ultra-thin layer of porous glass that reduces reflection by 75 percent, Wiseman said. The combination of the air pockets in the layer and the glass itself, both having different light-refracting properties, is what does the trick. The intellectual property lies with the materials and the process of how the layer takes shape, and understandably Wiseman declined to disclose them.

A lot of research has looked at the use of silicon dioxide with other materials, such as silicon nitride or titanium dioxide, to create better anti-reflective coating.

The ability to form this porous glass layer in room temperature is key to keeping the cost of using the technology low, Wiseman said. Usually, high temperatures of around 600-degree Celsius is needed to coat and bond a liquid to a solid material, and that requires significant heating costs, he said. The coating can go on as the last step in making the glass or solar panels.

The company is selling the liquid material and the know-how of coating it while Austrian company, EV Group, sells the factory equipment for the process. The equipment became available for sale only this summer,  and the sales targets are both glass and solar panel makers. Wiseman declined to disclose the names of customers who are trialing the technology.

Although Brisbane was founded only last year, the technology development began in 2005 at the University of Queensland in Australia. The university sold the technology to Brisbane and then provided seed funding along with some angel investors in the U.S.

The new round will enable the company to scale up manufacturing in its hometown. Brisbane also has a sales office in Menlo Park. Southern Cross Venture Partners and New Venture Partners are lead investors of the new round. Southern Cross manages a $200 million fund that counts the Australian government and Softbank  China Venture Capital as investors.

Updated: The company’s name was corrected to Brisbane Materials, from Brisband Materials.