A startup aims to crank up solar power with efficient materials

Raising money for solar technology manufacturing is tough these days. But a startup called Malachite Technologies hopes to break through with an idea to design equipment that can make a solar cell using super efficient semiconductor materials that can boost the solar energy generation of a panel.

The company pitched a hybrid solar cell concept and at the western regional Cleantech Open event last Friday (winners are announced today), and won over judges in the renewable energy category. The Cleantech Open will hold its national competition in San Jose next month.

The ultra efficient semiconductor materials are in the III-V family, and each III-V cell will sit on top of a silicon cell. Silicon is found in most of the solar cells on the market today, and the most efficient among them, made by SunPower, can convert 24 percent of the sunlight into electricity.

Malachite plans to stack a silicon layer with a gallium-arsenide layer to create a cell that should theoretically be able to achieve 38 percent efficiency, said Robert Weiss of Malachite during the pitch to the judges. Weiss was the former CTO of DayStar Technologies, which makes ultra thin solar panels using copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS).

The III-V cells are less common because their materials and manufacturing process are more expensive. The cells are usually made with a combination of materials such as indium, gallium, germanium and arsenic. These cells are typically found in solar panels that are equipped with lenses to concentrate sunlight onto the cells to boost their energy production. Using the optical booster means the cells themselves could be far smaller, which then reduces the overall equipment and production cost. The most efficient III-V cell, made in the lab and not subject to any concentration, has achieved nearly 30 percent efficiency.

As with many solar cell technologies, the scientific concept Weiss presented isn’t new. The big challenge is to design the process and equipment to not only produce the desired efficient cells but to also produce them in large quantities at low costs. That last part is what has stumbled many solar technology startups such as the now bankrupted Solyndra and Abound Solar over the past year, especially when they were trying to scale up production at a time when there was a bumper crop of solar panels in the market and much larger rivals were able to cut prices and take losses.

Not a cell maker

Malachite doesn’t want to sell solar cells. Instead, it wants to sell the factory equipment for making those cells, perhaps to silicon solar cell makers. The III-V cells usually are made in a process called metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD), which is expensive and slow. Weiss proposes to use the physical vapor deposition (PVD) process, or sputtering, that knocks loose atoms from semiconductor materials and attach them to a substrate to form a cell. PVD has been used for making CIGS thin films.

Weiss wants to raise up to $2 million to engineer and show a workable cell design. After that, the startup will likely need $10 million to assemble the equipment to complete a prototype cell. Another $30 million should enable Malachite to deliver beta equipment to customers for testing, Weiss said.

Catching investors’ interest will be difficult these days. Many solar cell and panel makers have built up huge factories, some at gigawatt-scale, only to find that demand isn’t there yet. Some of the top 10 solar manufacturers, including Suntech Power and First Solar, have scaled back production or postponed factory expansion plans. Many have filed for bankruptcy, including veterans such as Q-Cells, which is being sold to Korea-based Hanwha Group.

GTM Research released a report on Tuesday that is projecting that 180 solar panel makers will disappear all together or get bought by 2015, and nearly half of them will close factories in places with high manufacturing costs, such as the U.S., Europe and Canada.