The One Percent Solution: How Innovalight’s Silicon Ink Makes Solar Panels Slightly More Efficient, and Why That’s a Huge Deal

Silicon Valley is a place defined by big numbers and rapid change. Since the 1960s, the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit for the same cost has doubled every two years or so. The capacity of Flash memory chips has been increasing even faster of late, doubling every year. So when a company comes along promising to make solar panels that are a measly one percent more efficient than today’s standard technology, you might be tempted to shrug.

Don’t. That’s actually a lot, and it’s exactly the kind of incremental improvement that could soon raise solar energy to what’s known as “grid parity”—the point at which it’s equal to the cost of grid electricity, which, in the U.S., comes mostly from plants burning inexpensive but climate-destroying coal.

Today’s photovoltaic panels, which are made of crystalline silicon and capitalize on the photoelectric effect first explained by Albert Einstein, convert about 18 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity, on average. Panels treated with “silicon ink,” a liquid material developed by Sunnyvale, CA-based Innovalight, can hit 19 percent or more. If you’re a solar panel manufacturer like China’s Suntech Power, which produced a gigawatt’s worth of solar products last year, “going from 18 to 19 is a big deal, because it has an enormous impact on the output of your manufacturing infrastructure,” explains Conrad Burke, Innovalight’s CEO. “A gigawatt factory in China will have 40 individual 25-megawatt lines, each a football field in size. If you can find a way for them to add one step to their existing equipment and help to get a 25 megawatt factory line up to 30 megawatts, suddenly you have a 1.2 gigawatt factory for no more cost in capital, and that has a huge impact on the bottom line.”

Innovalight's silicon inkWhich could also help Innovalight’s own bottom line. And none too soon: the company’s investors, who’ve put about $60 million behind its silicon nanocrystal technology, have been waiting a long time for some good news.

Innovalight was founded in St. Paul, MN, back in 2002, and originally intended to go into the lighting industry—hence its name, which isn’t a reference to sunlight. “It turned out that didn’t work, and we were faced with the dilemma of whether we should shut this down or do something else with it,” Burke says.

Burke, a native of Ireland, was first introduced to Innovalight when he was a venture partner at Sevin Rosen Funds, one of the company’s original investors. Eventually, he decided he needed to take a more hands-on role himself.

“In essence, I restarted the company,” Burke says. “I took two of the original team, moved them here, hired a chief technology officer, raised a little more money, and sold the investors on the premise that there was an application here for solar.” That was five years ago. Now the company has 60 people, almost a quarter of whom have PhDs in material science and related fields.

At the core of Innovalight’s technology is a method for turning silicon into a gas, and then collecting the gaseous atoms into pure silicon nanocrystals, each 5 to 10 nanometers in size and completely free of oxygen. Silicon atoms love oxygen, and left to their own devices, they will … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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