UW Testbeds Touted as an Asset to Northwest Cleantech Innovators

Behind the tony shops of Seattle’s University Village, clean energy researchers are preparing to install one of the world’s most advanced machines for printing novel thin-film electronics.

The Danish-made, 28-foot-long roll-to-roll printer will be a centerpiece of the new Washington Clean Energy Testbeds, a 15,000-square-foot University of Washington facility for developing clean energy technologies unveiled Thursday.

Part of the UW Clean Energy Institute, the testbeds offer researchers, startup companies, and established businesses—even those with no ties to the UW—state-of-the art equipment to test, build, and validate new solar energy devices, batteries, materials, and energy control systems.

Before cutting a ribbon made of the kind thin-films that the new machines will produce, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee touted $8 million in state funding that supported construction of the facility, and plugged his plan to secure $20 million in clean energy investment in the current biennium.

“This is a job-creating institute,” said Inslee, who clearly relishes the opportunity to highlight one of the signature issues of his political career. “It is not only developing clean energy, it is developing jobs. And for every job we’re creating in this institute, we’re going to be creating thousands of jobs in clean energy in the year’s to come in the state of Washington.”

Several startup companies are already benefitting from the equipment at the facility—and the UW and cleantech industry anticipate more to come. UW vice president for innovation strategy Vikram Jandhyala referenced UW spinout companies using the testbeds, including Battery Informatics, which is developing a self-learning battery management system, and another nascent business working on membrane materials for batteries.

Companies without a tie to the UW were promised “open access” to the facility after an initial review of safety and feasibility. Jandhyala said independent companies will be able to use the facility on a pay-per-use basis, and will maintain ownership of their own intellectual property.

Craig Husa, who has run several cleantech businesses and is now CEO of waste heat-to-energy company SuperCritical Technologies, said the testbeds “will make a significant contribution to the success of more startups in our area.”

The facility provides one of the essential, and costly, ingredients for cleantech startup success: access to testing resources that can validate ideas and generate data that proves their efficacy to investors, he said.

But for novel clean energy technologies to compete—particularly new photovoltaic materials—they have to be very cheap and highly scalable. The standard silicon photovoltaic panels that dominate the industry today are produced largely in Asia, and at enormous scale, helping drive down solar costs to be competitive with fossil fuels in many electricity markets.

Inslee, right, and MacKenzie. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Devin MacKenzie, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur recruited to the UW as a professor and technical director of the testbeds facility, told Inslee that the manufacturing jobs connected to the advacned photovoltaics that could be produced on the roll-to-roll machine would require highly skilled individuals, but would not necessarily be numerous. Like so much of modern manufacturing, many processes are automated, requiring relatively few human operators. “There’s almost no manual labor,” he said.

The machine, procured in part with a $750,000 Washington Research Foundation grant, precisely deposits light-absorbing materials and vanishingly thin electrodes onto thin films in a single pass. The process is used by manufacturers in places like Denmark, Sweden, and Japan, MacKenzie said—not countries known for their low labor costs.

“But they’re very good at value-add, and they’re very good at engineering and smart process engineering,” MacKenzie told the governor. “So are we.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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