With bio-based materials, more sustainable solar power

California startup BioSolar says solar panels are a terrible thing for the environment. But it doesn't have to be that way. We talk with CEO David Lee about the company's approach to renewable materials.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Solar panels may be green, but they're terrible for the environment.

That's because they're largely made with the same chemicals that computers and mobile phones are -- you know, the ones that leak toxins in landfill.

David Lee thinks there's a better way. The CEO of Los Angeles, Calif.-based BioSolar says his company's approach -- replacing petroleum-based plastic components with those made from renewable plant resources -- won't just make environmental sense, but it will save manufacturers money, too.

I spoke with him about how the "BioBacksheet" can help solar panels make more sense...and cents.

SmartPlanet: How did you get involved with BioSolar?

David Lee: I'm an electrical engineer, I received my Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University. I began working for a defense company PRW, which is now Northrop Grumman. That's where I got my training.

Later on, I went into the commercial division of PRW -- they also do automotive, including vehicle safety systems -- and then I became an entrepreneur, working for several startup companies.

Finally in 2006, I decided that I want to be my own boss and go after my life's dream, and work on a subject that can change the Earth and the way people behave.

The time calls for green technology to actually be beneficial, and not just a name tag. BioSolar started in 2006, and I partnered with [now-CTO] Stan Levy, a legend in the energy packaging industry.

Dr. Levy worked at DuPont, and after that, consulted for many PV solar manufacturers.

SmartPlanet: Tell us about what distinguishes your company's technology.

DL: Most people think solar panels are green. They are a green source of energy, but some of the components have to be toughened up to last a long time in the environment.

Let's look at backsheets, the bottom-most layer of a solar panel, which needs to withstand 20 to 30 years in the environment, sometimes in the desert, sometimes in the rain.

[Manufacturers] go through very toxic processes to toughen them up. For example, Tedlar is solvent-cast in DMAC, a cancer-causing material. When the life of the product is over, you cannot burn it, because it would release hydrogen fluoride, released into the environment. So you have to bury it in the ground.

When people say renewable materials, you think about bottles you throw away and then decompose. We're looking at renewable materials that would last as long or longer than their petroleum counterpart.

So our solution is made from Nylon 11. This particular form of the polymer is derived from the castor bean, and it's extremely durable. We add certain ingredients to make it tougher and retain electrical properties that are superior to anything else out there.

SmartPlanet: So product longevity is your path to cost savings?

DL: Another way we reduce cost is to simplify the design. Conventional backsheets consist of three layers -- Tedlar on the top, polyester in the middle, Tedlar or EVA on the bottom.

But the problem is that these layers delaminate internally -- if you take apart a 10-year-old module in the field, the layers are held together by glue. Also, the cost of laminating is not cheap.

We're making a single layer that avoids all these issues.

SmartPlanet: How have manufacturers responded to your technology?

DL: We've been going to meet customers for the last seven months, and they're all excited about the fact that we're green and have the potential to reduce cost.

But none of them are concerned about [sustainability] as much as cost. Cost was the number one concern. The first question: "How much is it?" The second question: "How do you know it's more durable and long-lasting than what we're using?" Being green always comes last.

They love to use it as propaganda, to be "green." Right now, it's just a value-add. But the decision comes from the fact that it's more durable and lower cost.

The solar industry is facing a serious challenge from low-cost solar panels coming from China. They have to reduce cost every place they can. Without that, they can't survive.

SmartPlanet: What are your next steps?

DL: The goal at this point is to successfully commercialize our first product. That takes time, even if we satisfy ourselves. Customers require other testing, such as UL. Our value as a company goes higher when we finish these processes. We will consider licensing and acquisitions later. We are using third-party contract manufacturing by Rowland Technologies in Wallingford, Conn.

SmartPlanet: Is there pressure to look overseas for manufacturing?

DL: Not yet. As volume rises, perhaps that will be a challenge. Even using contract manufacturers in the United States, we're competitive. Once the volume matures, it might be easier.

But it's not time for us to go overseas. The manufacturing doesn't require a lot of human labor. Going to China is not going to help much.

SmartPlanet: Bioplastics have been around for some time. Is this a resurgence and opportunity?

DL: It's a new industry that's been invigorated lately. So far, all bioplastics have been focused on making compostable, throw-away products. Now bioplastics are focusing on more durable products.

We chose a material that's inherently strong. Nylon 11 has been used a long time in underwater cabling and some deep-sea drilling. The material itself is already quite durable. Then we make it more durable -- we change the properties of the polymer to make it tougher. The cost reduction is mostly coming from the fact that it's a single layer.

There are so many plastic parts used by heavy industries that are made from petroleum, then toughened up by adding fluoride to it. And that's always toxic. There is a drive and market to make more plastics with bio-based materials, so there's fewer pollution problems and their costs will be lower.

In fact, I just signed up for a conference focused on that topic.

There's more money to be made in the tough bioplastics. We all know that the petroleum supply is dwindling. The costs will not remain the same.

I think we are doing the right thing.

Editor's note: The original version of this post said DuPont's Kevlar was made with the solvent DMAC and used in solar panel backsheets; that is incorrect. The correct material is Tedlar, which is manufactured by the same company. It has been corrected.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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