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Applied Quantum Technology (AQT) said today that it is overcoming one of the major hurdles standing between thin-film solar innovation and mass commercialization: cost. It has joined forces with Intevac, maker of equipment used to build hard drives, to turn out solar cells in higher and cheaper volumes.

Despite so many companies pouring hours of research and development into perfecting thin-film solar cells, the industry has very little to show for it. All of these companies, including First Solar, Miasolé, and Nansolar — with hundreds of millions in capital raised between them — have failed to cost-effectively design and build high-volume manufacturing equipment. AQT says it will skip this step by borrowing the technology.

By not focusing on building its own manufacturing equipment, the company has positioned itself as one of the most capital efficient choices for investors in the thin-film market. It also says it won’t be passing the high costs of producing its own equipment to its customers, making the whole solar supply chain more affordable.

And now it’s raised $10 million from STPV Holdings to further its strategy. Using off-the-shelf machinery produced by Intevac, tailored specifically for the production of thin-film solar cells, the company plans to bring a new manufacturing facility online by the end of 2010.

Like many of the other thin-film solar players, AQT is making its cells out of copper, indium, selenium and selenide (CIGS), a concoction that’s cheaper than pricey crystalline silicon, but less efficient at converting sunlight into energy. AQT estimates its cells’ conversion rate around 14 percent — but they will be about 30 percent cheaper than their polysilicon peers.

The deal with Intevac is not exclusive — meaning the hard drive equipment maker could eventually sell the same equipment to other solar companies. But AQT says its adjustments to the machinery are what make it so effective and that it’s not worried about competitors adopting the same process. Two of its competitors, Miasolé and XsunX, are trying something similar, as Greentech Media points out, but they haven’t publicized any results.

AQT says it is using its new round of funding to buy enough equipment from Intevac to produce 15-megawatts worth of thin-film solar material. It will also expand its staff to handle ramped up operations.

Based in Santa Clara, Calif., with 15 employees, AQT is backed by several undisclosed investors, in addition to STPV.

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