dupontScience-oriented conglomerate DuPont has landed a $9 million partnership with the Department of Energy to conduct research into consumer-facing solar goods and components. The focus of the three-year program will be to market a protective film for plastic and glass thin-film photovoltaics, the company says.

Thin-film solar products have been taking off lately (they are a core business for companies like First Solar and Solyndra), mainly because they cut the costs of commercial and residential solar installations. They are also much more malleable, able to be folded or wrapped around structures, making them much more versatile. But in the negative column, they are much more vulnerable to the environment and are easily degraded over time. That’s where DuPont comes in, to develop a unique protective covering said to be 3,000 times thinner than a human hair to fend off the elements and make thin-film even more commonplace.

The deal calls for DuPont to chip in $6 million for the research, with the DOE adding $3 million in federal stimulus funds. But the company says the program could boost its annual solar sales above $1 billion by 2012 depending on how fast development and commercialization progress.

This isn’t the first time the Department of Energy has turned to DuPont to bring an energy efficiency product to market. Six years ago, the two worked together to create a refinery that converted corn and other organics into fuels and chemicals.

DuPont is yet another major American corporation taking up the green banner in earnest — even if cleantech hasn’t been its bread and butter (or even a consideration) in the past. For many years, DuPont has been publicizing its environmental efforts, but most were focused on making its own processes more sustainable. Now it says it is more interested in creating products and systems to help others do the same (and of course to staking out what will inevitably become an lucrative segment of the growing green economy).