Feds bet 1366 Technologies can slash solar costs

The feds finalized a $150 million loan guarantee for 1366 Technologies, a solar startup that's invented a cheaper way to make silicon wafers.

The Energy Department hasn't let the failure of former star Solyndra -- not even an FBI raid on the company -- prevent the agency from backing another solar firm it believes could slash the cost of solar and keep the U.S competitive. The DOE finalized Thursday a $150 million loan guarantee for 1366 Technologies, a silicon wafer maker that says it can reduce solar energy costs by 50 percent.

The news follows a flurry of federal funding announcements, a trend that's likely to continue as the DOE scrambles to finalize loan guarantees before the clean energy program ends in a few weeks.

1366 Technologies received a conditional commitment for the DOE-backed loan guarantee in June.  The company will use the loan guarantee -- essentially debt backed by the government -- to build a manufacturing project capable of producing between 700 and 1,000 megawatts of silicon-based wafers annually. Phase one of the project will be located in Lexington, Massachusetts and is expected to fund 70 permanent and 50 construction jobs, the DOE said in a release Thursday.

A look at 1366's tech

1366 says one solution to cutting solar costs is by improving silicon wafer production. The conventional method is a multi-step process that involves melting the silicon to make ingots, which are cut into big blocks. Those blocks are then sliced into thin wafers using a sawing machine that wastes up to 50 percent of the high-value silicon.

1366 invented a way to make wafers at the correct dimension directly from molten silicon. The technology was developed at MIT based on research by Ely Sachs (check out the YouTube video below for his explanation). The company received early support (to the tune of $4 million) from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency, a program modeled after the Department of Defense's DARPA that gives grants to high-risk early stage companies working on breakthrough technology.

1366 also has raised close to $46 million from venture capital investors including North Bridge Venture Partners, VantagePoint, GE Energy Financial Services, Ventizz Capital Fund and Polaris Venture Partners.

Photo: Flickr user zzzacks

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