Saturday, March 10, 2007

Solar technology gets White House boost

BOSTON - A company trying to harness energy from sunlight and interior light to wirelessly power everything from cell phones to signboards now has financial backing from the White House.

President Bush's program to help solar energy compete with conventional electricity sources will help fund Konarka Technologies' development of flexible plastic solar cell strips — material that could be embedded into the casings of laptop computers and even woven into power-producing clothing to energize digital media players or other electronics.

The technology, which received its first
Pentagon funding three years ago, offers a lightweight, flexible alternative to conventional rigid photovoltaic cells on glass panels.

Energy Secretary
Samuel Bodman is scheduled Thursday afternoon to tour Konarka's headquarters in a former textile mill in Lowell, where he's expected to announce funding from Bush's Solar America Initiative.

The award amount and other details were to be announced in a news conference at Konarka, a six-year-old private company that has attracted nearly $60 million in venture capital funding.

Konarka's nearly $10 million in grant money to date from U.S. and European governments includes funding from the Pentagon to supply lightweight portable battery chargers and material for tents to draw power from sunlight.

Chief Executive Howard Berke said the new White House support is a milestone for Konarka.

The first commercial product using Konarka's technology isn't expected to hit the market until next year, and the company isn't saying what that product might be. Konarka expects to provide prototypes in the second half of this year to commercial partners that would bring the technology to market.

Konarka's approach "is potentially a great breakthrough technology, but like all breakthroughs, they don't happen instantaneously," Berke said in a phone interview.

Observers say Konarka has a good chance of becoming a leader in solar power, an industry enjoying a recent surge in initial public stock offerings by startup companies as well as growing investments from traditional energy companies — for example, one of Konarka's financial backers is Chevron Corp.

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Konarka's development of plastic solar cell strips that can be manufactured like rolls of photographic film "has the promise of becoming a low-cost manufacturing technique," said Jeffrey Bencik, a Jefferies & Co. analyst who follows the solar industry. "Some of their laboratory production has worked as advertised. But can they mass-produce it and get the same result? That's the biggest question."

Among developers of solar technology for small-scale uses, Konarka is "definitely doing the best job at developing what ultimately will have to be a mass-manufactured material," said Dan Nocera, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor.

However, Nocera said it remains to be seen whether Konarka's so-called "Power Plastic" is sufficiently chemically stable to convert energy efficiently both when light is dim and when it's bright.

Konarka, which takes its name from an ancient temple in India dedicated to the sun god Surya, was founded by Berke and Alan Heeger, who shared the 2000 Nobel Chemistry prize for showing that certain plastics can be made to conduct electricity.

The discovery about polymers — long considered to be useful only as electrical insulators — led to the development of new types of plastics to create flexible and lightweight alternatives to traditional solar cells on heavy glass panels.

Konarka developed low-cost plastics that could be used as the top and bottom surfaces of the photovoltaic cell. The 50-employee company says it has more than 280 patents and patent applications for materials, manufacturing and other processes and devices.

The company says its solar cells are efficient across a much broader spectrum of light than traditional cells, allowing them to draw energy from both the sun and indoor lighting.

Konarka says its material is lightweight and flexible so that it can be colored, patterned and cut to fit almost any device. The firm envisions embedding its material in cell phones, laptops and toys to provide power on the go. Clothing could be woven with the material to supply power for handheld electronics, and signboards, traffic lights and rooftops could be fitted with solar strips.

Berke foresees wide use of such technology in the developing world and areas off the electrical grid.

To that end, Berke said Konarka has held confidential discussions with the manufacturer of an inexpensive portable computer developed for the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, which seeks to provide computers to young students in the developing world. The project's current design features a hand crank for charging batteries.

"In the developing world, great demand exists for off-the-grid support of electronic devices," Berke said. Hosting Banner