An extra layer of efficiency for solar panels

HyperSolar CEO Tim Young says his company's polymer technology can help extract more energy from solar panels.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In a world where cleantech researchers are racing to produce the world's most efficient solar cell, HyperSolar CEO Tim Young is quietly working to eliminate the bottlenecks around them.

That's because his company's technology, a special optical layer made of an acrylic polymer, can transfer more light to the cell -- thus producing more energy in return.

I spoke with him from his office in Santa Barbara, Calif. about how his company can impact the solar market.

SmartPlanet: How did HyperSolar get started?

Tim Young: We have one mission, and that's to dramatically reduce the cost of solar electricity. We're doing that by using an inexpensive optical layer in the place of expensive silicon solar cells.

They're still saying that silicon cells are about 90 percent of the total spend in a module. That [figure] fluctuates, but what goes into the silicon, ingot, wafer and cell is still about 90 percent. If you can take silicon cells out, and replace it with something less expensive, you can reduce the cost of electricity.

Our founder -- inventor, really -- is a professor at UCSB; that's why we're in Santa Barbara.

SmartPlanet: How does your technology work?

TY: The collection area is the same size. We're using low concentration techniques that bring in the light and transfer that light into the solar cell. We're able to get more energy into the cell, thus more energy out. That's not to be confused with the efficiency of the solar cell.

It doesn't matter if your cell is 14 percent efficient or 20 percent efficient; we can get more energy into it and then out of it.

If you can visualize a solar panel, you've got solar cells covering the entire module, the entire panel. What we're doing is reducing those cells -- the sun no longer has to hit the cell directly, head on -- and we're transferring the collected light into the solar cell. Imagine a "light pipe" -- like a fiberoptic line transfers data, we're transferring light just a few inches to the solar cell.

By doing that, the sun is no longer hitting the solar cell directly, but you're collecting it, and transferring more energy into it, and thus more energy out.

SmartPlanet: So it's ideal for less-than-optimal solar conditions?

TY: We can't increase the amount of light that hits the panel itself; we'll just do more with it when it gets there.

Because of the wide angle at which we're collecting sun, we believe we're not going to use a [solar] tracker.

SmartPlanet: Who are your customers?

TY: Our clients will be the solar panel manufacturers. Rather than being a manufacturer, and manufacture panels from scratch, we hope to be able to address the conventional solar panel manufacturer itself. Use our layer on top of your panel.

The reason solar is surviving right now, whether Germany or the U.S., is the subsidies. But if the economy goes in the direction it's going, and the subsidies go away, current manufacturing is going to die, real fast, unless someone comes up with a disruptive technology.

We're not there yet, but we hope to be that company. If we can bring it down to 30 to 40 percent cost reduction, that's huge. Even a 10 percent reduction is huge.

SmartPlanet: What are your next steps?

TY: We're in the finishing touches of the design stage, and we're getting ready for our prototype stage. We're trying to get a thinner layer out of it before we go there -- it's weight related. Ideally, if we could have our layer be about half a centimeter, we'd be in great shape.

SmartPlanet: Given the volatility in the solar market, are you worried about the viability of your business?

TY: Our goal is to reduce the cost. We're not trying to build traditional panels. We're not a thin-film startup, which is a very bad place to be right now. If our product works on a conventional solar panel, it would then work in a thin film as well. Or a solar farm.

We're lean and mean. This design phase is not financially intensive. It's about manpower; brain power. I have no qualms about being able to survive.

SmartPlanet: And you can use your technology for crystalline silicon, thin film or concentrated solar applications.

TY: Crystalline is still 90 percent of it.

Someone has to come up with a way. The sun is our absolute most abundant source of energy. It's just a matter of harnessing it. Some company, or many companies, are going to do a better and better job of that. We hope to be one of those companies.

Our concept is strong. Our technology is strong. It's just a matter of putting some pieces in place.

SmartPlanet: What challenges do you face?

TY: Specific to the product, you've got initial challenges of propagation loss -- the materials that you use, how well do they hold the light. Beyond that, you've got manufacturing challenges: does your layer hold up for 20 years in 150-degree Phoenix weather?

SmartPlanet: And scale?

Scale will be sort of the [responsibility of the] manufacturer. They're already producing that layer that sits on top of the panel. So licensing would be our goal.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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