The company has managed the nearly impossible for a solar startup over the last few years: it is still in business.
The first thing to know about 1366 Technologies is that it has survived. Over the last three years, a long list of solar-power manufacturers have gone out of business, including BP Solar and startups Abound Solar and Solyndra. Not only has 1366 managed to remain afloat through this period, but it has prospered, in a deliberate and methodical way.
Last year the company opened a demonstration-scale factory to produce silicon wafers, a critical component in the most common type of solar cells. If all goes well, early next year it will break ground on a much larger factory financed in part by a federal loan guarantee it secured in June 2011, a few months before Solyndra infamously went bankrupt.
CEO Frank van Mierlo is confident that the failures of solar manufacturing are yesterday’s story. He beams with pride as he shows a visitor around the company’s factory in suburban Boston. Although it’s modest compared with a commercial plant, the many pieces of equipment underscore the investment required to make solar cells.
One room, though, is strictly off-limits to outsiders. In it are two custom–built furnaces that produce thin six-inch-square wafers directly from molten silicon. The final wafers are identical to those made in today’s conventional solar factories, where they are cut from ingots. But 1366’s machines simplify the traditional manufacturing process into one step, slashing costs by more than half. That’s important, since silicon wafers account for about 40 percent of the cost of today’s solar panels, and manufacturers are hungry for even tiny cost reductions.
The heart of the technology is a dishwasher-size machine that freezes the molten silicon into wafers. Chief technology officer Emanuel Sachs, a former professor at MIT, demonstrated the concept with a bath of liquid tin. He then adapted the technology to small silicon wafers, and finally to wafers of industry-standard size. The company’s machine now turns out more than 1,000 wafers a day.
Sachs also invented the technology behind Evergreen Solar, which went bankrupt in August 2011. Unlike Evergreen, though, 1366 chose to supply components for solar panels to other manufacturers, rather than trying to sell completed panels itself. This reduced the business risk of getting a new technology accepted and made it less expensive to scale up the manufacturing process.
By the end of next year, 1366 intends to have 50 machines at its planned $100 million factory, producing enough wafers for 250 megawatts of solar power. By then, analysts estimate, the market for solar will be gigawatts bigger than it is today. And the prospects for solar power could be brightening.