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Durham company works to convert sunlight to power

Tue, 01/31/2012 - 10:13pm
LAURA OLENIACZAssociated Press

In the palm of his hand, Joe Carr held a small piece of material that looked to be about the size of an ant. On top of that, was a black dot about the size as that from a ballpoint pen.

That dot is a solar cell, made by the Durham-based company Semprius Inc. for use in photovoltaic solar modules that can turn sunlight into electrical power.

Carr, Semprius' CEO, said the company is making a certain type of solar technology, called concentrated photovoltaic technology, which allows the company to save on the cost of materials, and to produce more effective solar technology.

Most photovoltaic solar modules use silicon in the material of their semiconductors, which are used to create electricity, said Russ Kanjorski, vice president of business development for Semprius. There's also another technology that uses a thin layer of material to create electricity.

What Semprius uses is a semiconductor material that's more efficient in using sunlight to create electricity. But Kanjorksi said that material is also more expensive. That's why lenses or other materials are used to the focus light onto the solar cells.

Kanjorksi said Semprius concentrate sunlight onto each solar cell, and in their modules, the individual cells make up less than one percent of the surface area of the background module material.

What makes Semprius unique, Carr said, is the process used to make their tiny solar cells, and doing that without wasting the semiconductor material they're made from.

The company licensed that technology from the University of Illinois. It was created in the laboratory of John A. Rogers, a science and engineering professor who recently was announced as the winner of the as the winner of the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Prize, according to previous reports in The Herald-Sun.

The technology has other applications, but Carr said Semprius chose to focus on how the process can be used in solar technology.

"This ability to (make the solar cells), which is unique, one it cuts the cost, but two, it enables us to go with very small cells that nobody else has," Kanjorksi said. "What does that mean to have the world's smallest solar cell? It means quite a bit. It changes the way we do optics, it raises the performance, lowers the cost."

Semprius has designed photovoltaic solar modules using its solar cells, and has built them in small quantities in its Durham offices. It's now is looking to build more units so they can go to partner companies for initial tests.

Currently, Semprius is about six weeks away from moving equipment into a pilot production plant, said Dave Halter, vice president of manufacturing for Semprius.

In July of last year, the governor's office announced that the company has plans to create 256 jobs over five years, and to make a capital investment of $89.7 million in the plant, which is located in Henderson. The company received state performance-based grants as incentives for the project, which are tied to certain hiring and other milestones.

The company plans to sell modules produced in the facility to global system integrators and project developers, the release states, who in turn sell complete solar systems to end users such as utility companies.

Halter said construction began in October on the existing building where they plan to house the plant. They expect to begin production at there in the third quarter of the year. Carr said the company is planning its first full production to "shake out" their equipment before launching into a "more massive production."

Kanjorksi said growth is expected in solar technology, especially for sunny, dry regions, because costs for solar technology have come down rapidly.

Bob Gibson, vice president of market intelligence for the Solar Electric Power Association, a nonprofit that helps electric utilities use more solar technologies, said the global market for solar has boomed in the past five to six years, and is expected to grow in the United States.

Last year for the first time, he said more than 1-gigawatts' worth of solar power was installed in the United States. In 2000, he said the total capacity in the country for solar was about 128 megawatts.

The total is now more than 3.1 gigawatts worth of installations in the United States, which he said is still less than 1 percent of the electricity consumed.

"People have different guesses for how big it's going to get," he said. "In the next five to 10 years, you're going to see an awful lot of the United States where solar is cost competitive. Today it's more expensive in most places, but the margin is shrinking fast."

Gibson said that especially for photovoltaic solar technologies, the cost has come down, driven by encouraging government policies, and other factors. He said that's put a focus on how cost competitive any particular manufacturer can be, and there are some "great new technologies" emerging.

"There's a lot of companies entering into it, there are going to be a lot of shakeouts," Gibson said.

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Information from: The Herald-Sun, http://www.herald-sun.com

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