Profiling 1366 Technologies: One Year Later

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Last January, we took a look at how ARPA-E performer, 1366 Technologies is working to dramatically reduce the cost of solar energy. A year later, we revisited their headquarters in Lexington, MA to see the progress they've made.
Frank Van Meirlo, Ely Sachs
Energy Department Video

FRANK VAN MIERLO:  We all understand that solar is promising.  We know that there is a lot of solar energy available.  The problem is that it’s too expensive.  (Music plays.)

ELY SACHS:  One thing that we’re very proud of about 1366 is that we have very strong competence in developing a manufacturing process.  So the way the industry-standard multi-crystal wafers are made – it’s a very laborious process.  You end up purifying twice as much material as you use because half of it ends up as dust.  Lots of steps, lots of cost and very high capital-expenditure requirement.

MR. VAN MIERLO:  We have one particular process that was very disruptive, but also more risky, and that was a whole new wafer manufacturing technique.  It was largely an unfunded effort until we were funded by ARPA-E.  In the spring of 2009, we sent in the proposal, and by the end of 2009 we were under contract.

MR. SACHS:  It allowed us to rapidly hire and also gave us a pool of resources to build equipment.  A good analogy is how glass used to be made.  If you look at windows in structures from the 19th century, you’ll see that the windows are very small and they’re often not very flat.  People have gotten better at making them flat, but the way they did that was by taking these pieces of glass that they had cast and grinding and polishing both sides.  So incredibly expensive, and that’s why windows remained small. 

Then, Pilkington invented the float glass process, where molten glass is floated on a bed of molten tin.  And this is a continuous process which creates the glass to the finished size and surface finish.  And that’s how essentially all glass is made today.  As a result, not only is the quality higher, but also, you can afford to make large pieces of glass.  And that’s completely changed architecture. 

What we do is we take the same purified starting material, we melt it in the crucible and we form a wafer at the surface of a melt.  So it’s a very fast process, and most importantly, there’s no sawing required.

MR. VAN MIERLO:  As a country, we need to be energy-independent.  The purchases that we make as an economy to meet our energy needs are more than half of our trade deficits.  Forty percent of the world’s pure silicone, for example, is produced right here in the U.S.  Most of that is exported, and that represents an export of about $1.7 billion. 

Turn all that pure silicone into wafers, and even allowing for a price decline, you turn that into a $7 billion export.  That would mean an extra $5.3 billion of money into the economy.  That would represent roughly 30,000 jobs.  By working on that, we make a future where we are energy-independent and we produce all the energy that we need right here in the U.S. 

MR. SACHS:  Getting the ARPA-E program was very important to us.  That proved to be essential to our recent success in raising private investment of our $30 million because we had advanced direct wafer to the point where potential investors could see what the future might hold.  The power from the sun is about 10,000 times the average power consumption of all of mankind.

MR. VAN MIERLO:  In the long run, it’s the only viable way that we have to fuel our society.  The question is, how quickly will we get there?  And of course, that’s our venture.  We are dedicating ourselves to make that sooner rather than later.

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