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Swedish Nanotech Startup Sees Space Material Improving Solar

Swedish Nanotech Startup Sees Space Material Improving Solar
3D Atomic Force Micrograph of the surface of molecular beam epitaxy-grown gallium arsenide. Photographer: Oxford Scientific via Getty Images

Sol Voltaics AB, a Swedish startup backed by the founder of Norway’s Renewable Energy Corp. ASA, is developing a material based on tiny amounts of a compound used in space electronics that can enhance conventional solar panels.

Sol Voltaics has developed a process to make semiconductor nanowires of gallium arsenide that can boost the conversion efficiency of standard solar panels by as much as 25 percent, the Lund, Sweden-based company said in an e-mailed statement.

Almost two-thirds of the cost of solar energy systems is land, labor and other factors that haven’t fallen as fast as panel prices and may never, according to Sol Voltaic Chief Executive Officer Dave Epstein. One way manufacturers can boost margins, without the potential for further cost reduction, is by creating products with higher efficiencies, he said.

“We’ve now taken all costs out of the module,” Epstein said in an interview in San Francisco. “We’re done with the cost game. The only way to fix that is efficiency.”

Sol Voltaics’s manufacturing process creates an ink-like substance made of nanowires that panel makers can buy and incorporate at the end of their manufacturing lines, Epstein said. Systems made with the material would cost about 15 percent to 20 percent less “even if you don’t reduce the price,” because more power can be produced with fewer panels, he said.

The company has raised $11 million since its founding in 2007 and is seeking as much as $20 million to produce test cells and develop larger equipment this year, according to the statement. Less than $50 million will be required to begin commercial scale production in 2015, Epstein said.

Investors include Foundation Asset Management AB, Swedish government evergreen fund Industrifonden and Scandinavian venture capital company Teknoinvest AS. Alf Bjorseth, founder and former chief executive of Renewable Energy Corp., also backs the company through his investment company, Scatec AS.

Gallium arsenide is commonly used in space applications, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Gallium is rarer than gold; though arsenic isn’t rare, it’s poisonous, the agency says on its website.

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