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Faces of the Recovery Act: 1366 Technologies


LEXINGTON, MA - At 1366 Technologies, Ely Sachs and Frank van Mierlo are using ARPA-E Recovery Act funding to dramatically reduce the costs of solar panel production.
President Obama, Ely Sachs, Frank van Mierlo
Energy Department Video

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Next we need to encourage American innovation.  Last year we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history – (applause) – an investment – an investment that could lead to the world’s cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched.  And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy.


ELY SACHS:  The way the majority of photovoltaic solar panels are made today is by building a photovoltaic cell.  So this thing is built on a silicon wafer.  And so this is an example of the multicrystalline silicon wafer.

In today’s industry-standard process you take very highly refined silicon, and you melt it in a big pot to produce an ingot this large.  You then saw the ingot to smaller ingots like this.  You then – and this is the hard part – saw that smaller ingot with wire and abrasive into the wafers.  And in the process of that sawing, you make silicon dust like this, which has to be thrown out.  You cannot economically reclaim it.  And the net result is that the wafers that you produce – the cost of those wafers accounts for almost half of the cost of the complete photovoltaic module.

What we do in direct wafer is, we cut out lots of these steps.  So we start with the same purified silicon.  We melt it in a pot, but we form a wafer directly.  And that wafer is ready to go right on to cell processing.  There’s no sawing or no surface treatment required.

The way you can think about what we do is imagine a lake at the beginning of winter where the ice is beginning to freeze, and you have a thin layer of ice.  Imagine you reached out and you grabbed that thin sheet of ice.  But now imagine that that lake was made of silicon at red-hot temperatures, and what you reached out and grabbed was a thin sheet of silicon.  That’s essentially what we do.

FRANK VAN MIERLO:  So as you can see, we have an open office plan. 

The ARPA-E funding was very important for us because it allowed us to work on the most risky of all our projects, which potentially is going to deliver the largest cost reduction.  So the direct wafer program potentially can reduce the cost of wafers by as much as 70 percent.  So that would be a big step forward for photovoltaics in – as a whole and will create real manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

Investing in manufacturing technologies like we are developing here is the best way of keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States because that is what’s going to build a core competence that allows you to compete with other places in the world.  And that’s the same – exactly what the ARPA-E funding is allowing us to do.

SECRETARY OF ENERGY STEVEN CHU:  I am so proud of the group of people that we’ve been able to recruit for this ARPA-E project because in the end it’s the quality of the people.  We’re asking people to swing from the heels.  Sure, there will be some failures, but there will be some home runs and a few grand slams.  And with those grand slams, we can really transform our energy choices.  That’s what ARPA-E is about.