9/21/2012 10:12:37 AM
technology review: Innovation in Manufacturing Takes a Village
For expensive manufacturing research on solar panels and 3-D printing, a new push toward shared pilot production facilities.
Halfmoon, NY - Inside an 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Halfmoon, New York, a town north of Albany, a researcher gingerly lifts a photovoltaic cell from an oven, its glass backing shimmering with an ultrathin coating of exotic metals.
This particular solar technology—based on a material called copper indium gallium selenide (often called CIGS)—is a clear underdog in the marketplace. With a supply glut depressing the price of panels made from crystalline silicon, the dominant technology in solar, CIGS is still too expensive per watt of output to compete (see "The Bright Side of a Solar Industry Shakeout").
With improvements in efficiency and refinements in production methods, CIGS technology could still be a potential option for renewable energy, at least in some applications. But the facilities needed to get there are enormously expensive. The production facility in Halfmoon—which can turn out a modest 100 kilowatts worth of CIGS solar cells a year—is crucial for testing whether new advances in materials can translate into reliable and affordable commercial production. Such production lines, depending on their configuration, can cost between $10 million and $50 million.
That's way too much for a tiny CIGS company such as Magnolia Solar, based in Woburn, Massachusetts. The company's entire market capitalization is now just $3 million, following a 90 percent plunge in its stock price in the past two years as prices for solar panels have fallen. "There is no way we could afford this on our own," says Ashook Sood, the company's CEO.
Companies like Magnolia and many others can persist because the costs at Halfmoon are shared across the industry. Under the auspices of the Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium, located at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the pilot-scale production line is shared by some 40 companies and backed by a $57 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. And the line is slated to expand its production from 100 kilowatts of panels a year to 20 megawatts. "We have access to this excellent solar-cell facility without the capital outlay," Sood says.