In the solar cell market, there are three broad categories. Thin-film manufacturers produce cells that convert little of the sun’s energy to electricity, but are dirt cheap. Opposite thin-film, companies like Spectrolab and Emcore make highly efficient, but very expensive cells. Between are the standard solar photovoltaic makers, with average efficiencies, and average prices.
The result is a pricing balance that gives each group a slice of the overall market. But what if it were possible to have the low production costs of a thin-film maker like First Solar, plus the 30 percent-plus efficiencies of a Spectrolab? Most industry pundits would say such disruptive technology is a pipe dream, but Wakonda Technologies is claiming to be able to make it happen.
What makes Spectrolab’s technology so expensive is the necessity building its cells atop a single-crystal wafer, a sheet of material that is painstakingly manufactured as a flawless whole in order to precisely control its electrical properties. Wakonda, a newly-emergy Medford, Mass. startup, says it has the ability to “simulate” those wafers with a cheap metal foil, much as thin-film makers do. Think of it as a bit like replacing expensive real diamonds with cubic zirconium.
Unfortunately, Wakonda isn’t giving many real specifics on its technology. Its credibility instead relies on an all-star cast of backers. The venture firms helping supply its $9.5 million financing include Advanced Technology Ventures, General Catalyst Partners and Polaris Venture Partners. Notably, Wakonda also has the financial support of Applied Ventures, the investing arm of Applied Materials, a large tech company that has some of the most advanced thin-film manufacturing technology around.
If Wakonda’s technology lives up to the early claims of thin-film manufacturing prices with over 30 percent cell efficiencies, it will not only leapfrog the existing solar industry, but will also be less expensive than any existing energy generation technology, including coal, natural gas and nuclear.
Still, talk is cheap, and Wakonda’s technology has yet to move out of the labs. And in case it does meet its targets and leapfrogs the existing solar industry, it still has some contenders, such as the ultra-cheap solar concentrating technology that Sunrgi claims to have. Here’s to both of them living up to their promises.