Monday, March 20, 2006

The Sun May Shine Down on Nano-Solar Sooner Than Expected

The promise of nano-solar technology—the application of nanotechnology to the development of solar cells—has received a lot of attention over the last year. By manipulating matter at the scale of a billionth of a metre, scientists believe they can significantly improve the efficiency of solar cells, on the order of a threefold increase in the electric conversion rate over the next decade.

There are a number of nanotechnologies demonstrating real efficiency gains and costs savings in photovoltaic applications, including carbon nanotubes, quantum dots and dye-sensitized solar cells. Dye solar cells (DSC), however, seem to be breaking out of the pack.

Dyesol, listed down under on the Australian Stock Exchange as DYE, is up 300 percent in 2006 and climbed 1,000 percent in February. This week, Konarka, which licenses DSC technology in North America, received $20 million in a private equity investment, raising its capital fundraising efforts to $60 million. In Japan, auto parts maker Aisin Seiki is producing dye sensitized solar batteries. Major semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics announced its intention to ramp up its commitment to a dye solar cell product line.

Dye solar cells are essentially nano-engineered photosynthesis--a nanocrystalline layer of titanium dioxide absorbs photosensitive dye to generate a voltage—that can produce electricity even when the shine is not shining. The technology is demonstrating efficiencies of 10 percent, higher than other thin film solar cells, and can be produced at a much lower cost than silicon solar cells.

Yet amidst all the buzz around solar IPOs last year, the first solar nanotech IPO in August failed to rise above the din. Following an international conference last month, however, international investors started to scoop up shares of Dyesol. Certainly, the solar hype helped. But the real attraction was the appointment of Michael Graetzel—the inventor of dye solar cells—to chairman of Dyesol’s Technology Advisory Board. DSC production is quickly establishing a global footprint.

The major market for these photosynthesis replicating cells is building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). When I spoke this summer with Toby Meyer of Solaronix, one of Professor Graetzel’s protégés at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, his Swiss-based company expected to be in production within 12 months and planned to establish an early market in parking meters and garden lamps. Dye solar cell manufacturing facilities also are being negotiated across Asia, Europe and North America.

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