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Blinded by the light
Solaria shines light on high-powered solar panel
By Martin LaMonica
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: February 22, 2007, 12:13 PM PST
Solaria, a solar electric start-up, has devised a novel way to get more power from a solar cell: chopping it up into many pieces.
The company's CEO, Suvi Sharma, gave an early peak at his company's products Wednesday at Piper Jaffray's Opportunities in Alternative Energy investor conference in New York.
Solaria is one of several companies pursuing solar concentrators as a way to increase the output coming from solar cells. Solar concentrators use optics, such as mirrors or lenses, to focus sunlight onto the solar cells that convert light to electricity. By magnifying light, designers can generate more power from solar cells made of silicon and other expensive materials.
Rather than dramatically boosting the sun's power, Solaria intends to only double the light's rays in its initial products, which are coming out this year, said Sharma. A future product, due next year, will triple the light's intensity.
Solaria does its concentration using plastic-based optics. A flat plastic casing made out of a proprietary polymer houses the solar cells while amplifying the light. Viewed from the side, the solar cells are held atop small, elevated grooves molded into the plastic.
The advantage of this design is that the solar cells in their plastic encasing fit into the standard-size modules, or panels, said Sharma. The concentrator design allows the company to use 50 percent to 60 percent less silicon, which should make the product more cost-effective compared with standard silicon panels.
"The two big issues in this industry are scale and cost," Sharma said. "There are a lot of innovations going into the materials side. Where there hasn't been a lot of innovation has been on the modules side."
With growing demand for solar energy, several companies have formed to explore concentrators. Many are specialized devices that place panels atop poles that rotate during the day to maximize light intake.
Sharma expects the market will specialize between companies pursuing high concentrators, which can magnify light hundreds of times, versus low concentrators.
"Concentrating light two or three times is an area that is relatively unexplored compared to high concentration," he said.
The company, which has raised $27 million in funding, expects to have customers this year and ramp up production of its modules next year. It is targeting large installations at corporate buildings rather than residential homes.
Sharma said in 2008 it will have a 15 percent to 17 percent cost advantage over traditional panels, a percentage that will go up as the company ramps up manufacturing volume and takes advantage of anticipated lower silicon costs. It intends to outsource the actual production of the panels.
Another company looking to use the concentator technique on standard-size modules is Practical Instruments, which uses a heliotube, a rotating tube-shaped mirror, to amplify light.
Sharma said there are a few other smaller solar concentrator companies, but the company's primary competition will be existing solar panels.
Solaria, too, originally played with another design, trying to concentrate light as it hit the finished module, rather than within the solar cells.
With its current design, it can take better advantage of advancements in material manufacturing and offer optimized electronics, Sharma said.