Day4 Energy reduces cost, increases efficiency of solar cell design

Vancouver-based solar manufacturer Day4 Energy announced today that it has developed a design and manufacturing process for a second-generation solar cell that achieves 18 per cent efficiency (multi-crystalline) and 19 per cent efficiency (mono-crystalline) while reducing manufacturing costs by up to 25 per cent. “The application of the Generation II photovoltaic (PV) cell technology for multi-crystalline products is particularly important because of the material’s lower price point and the company’s secured cell supply. The Generation II technology was designed to be fully compatible with Day4 Energy’s existing manufacturing equipment, enabling rapid deployment and scale-up,” the company said today in a release.

Day4’s existing product line, sold since 2006, is a multi-crystalline product that’s 14.7 per cent efficient, already making it one of the more efficient cells on the market. “Performance at this level using less costly multi-crystalline material cannot be achieved without employing the Day4 Electrode technology,” said John MacDonald, chairman and CEO of Day4 Energy. The company says it will fast-track commercial scale-up of the second-gen cells over the next 18 months and is in talks with potential manufacturing partners.

The company’s edge against competitors is that it has developed a better — and patent-protected — way to connect solar PV cells to solar modules and each other. Today’s solar panels are typically made by soldering cells to a module using a high-heat process that can damage cells and limit the exposed surface area of a cell. Day4 has developed a proprietary electrode and associated process for connecting cells — one that’s low temperature, and uses back-contact polymer/copper technology. The company claims that its Electrode reduces electrical resistance, by a factor of 10, from the material traditionally used to connect cells together. The approach also makes module surfaces simply look better, because all contacts are on the back (not particularly unique, but certainly welcome).

Day4 went public last December, raising more than $100 million. At the time, its production capacity was 12-megawatts annually. Earlier this month it announced it has expanded manufacturing capacity at its Vancouver-area facility to 47 megawatts. It has now entered its Phase II expansion, targeting the addition of another 50 MW of capacity. If completed within the next five months, it would exceed its goal of having 90 MW by the end of this year. The company said the expansion allows it to move forward with a global-scale expansion, “which includes an accelerated implementation of the third-party manufacturing strategy.”

Company revenues are growing rapidly, backed by a strong and growing pipeline of orders. If Day4 can make a material reduction in costs while increasing efficiency to 18 per cent, this would be an impressive breakthrough. Not that there aren’t other innovations out there that show more potential, but Day4 appears positioned to get there much faster than many of its competitors. Though not all competitors. SunPower, for example, says it has a 23.4 per cent efficient third-gen cell that’s expected to be in production in two years. Compared to SunPower’s expected $1.3 billion in revenues this year, Day4 is a small fry. But continuing strong demand for solar products makes it possible for a Day4 to thrive, and Day4 can still gain an edge over SunPower if its 18-per-cent efficient cell and resulting modules come at a much lower cost than what SunPower can offer. A tall order, yes, but Day4 appears convinced it can achieve it.

NOTE: For a great post on another Canadian solar company, Cyrium Technologies of Ottawa, VentureBeat’s Chris Morrison writes about a recent funding announcement here. Cyrium makes high-efficiency cells that can be used for concentrated solar PV products. It’s aiming to unseat the dominance of SpectroLab and Emcore.

EEStor update: Is there a materials engineer in the house?

EEStor put out a press release just minutes ago talking about “Certification of Additional Key Production Milestones” and “Enhancement of Chemical Purity.” According to the release, “These key certified production milestones of particle crystallization, size, purity and polarization are expected to assist EEStor in providing not only present and future energy storage requirements, but also production consistency.” There’s talk of certification data from “outside sources” that the purified aluminum oxide — used as a coating material on what I assume is the barium titanate — can have a voltage breakdown of 1,100 volts per micron. “The target working voltage of EEStor’s chemical processes is at 350 volts per micron. This provides the potential for excellent protection from voltage breakdown.”

So what does all this mean? Hmmm… I honestly haven’t a clue. Couldn’t tell you if this is important or not, so I issue a call: Is there an engineer in the house who can decrypt this technospeak?

As for EEStor, I suggest Mr. Weir hire someone with skills in the art of “plain language” to write his future press releases. Ugh…

Tornado power project gathers energy

It’s been about a year since I last wrote about Louis Michaud, the retired engineer from Sarnia, Ontario, who believes he can create and manage the power of tornados and use the resulting energy to produce electricity. He has formed a company called AVEtec Energy Corp. and for the past year has been trying to get the funding and partnerships required to do a decent scaled-up demonstration of his vortex engine. “The biggest breakthrough has been in media attention,” jokes Michaud, who has been keeping me up to date on his work (check his latest presentation here). He is, however, having a tougher time turning curiosity and genuine interest into financial and strategic commitments.

Back when I wrote about AVEtec in the Toronto Star, Michaud was just working with a prototype vortex engine in his garage with a one-meter diameter. At one point he was approached by Discovery TV, who wanted to film a one-hour show about his work. They wanted him to build a prototype that was 10 to 20 meters in diameter, even offering to pay for it, but a deal never got hammered out — the channel went silent. So Michaud went ahead, using $20,000 to $30,000 of AVEtec’s own money, and started building a four-meter diameter prototype. “Our priority is demonstrating the ability of producing a fair size outdoor vortex,” he told me in a recent e-mail. He also said he’s been getting some inquiries from people wanting to get involved, “including one from the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico,” he said.

He’s happy with progress on the four-meter prototype. “The vortices were the best produced so far and some must have reached a height of over 40 feet above grade,” he explained in an e-mail to me today. “The top of the cylinder is 16 feet above grade and the building roof is 30 feet above grade. The vortex extended 20 to 30 feet above the top of the Lexan cylinder.” Clearly, he’s beginning to prove that as he scales up the vortex engine the resulting vortex also scales up to the point where it’s powerful enough to create electricity.

His ultimate goal is to build a vortex engine with a 50 to 200 meter diameter capable of creating a tornado that’s up to 50 meters wide and 20 kilometres tall. Such a spinning beast would generate 200 megawatts of electricity using 20 turbines about 10 megawatts each in size. It would get its initial energy from the waste heat of a power plant or something equivalent.

It’s a tall order, but bless the man (or woman) with the determination and vision to follow it through.

France’s Schneider Electric scoops up Xantrex

Well, as suspected, Schneider Electric of France has struck a deal to buy Vancouver-based power electronics maker Xantrex for $410 million. Perhaps just as interesting is that Schneider could be a takeover target of Switzerland’s ABB. Talk about massive fish swallowing big fish swallowing little fish. It’s yet another sign that renewables is the place to be, and that the big companies are gearing up for expectations of higher demand.

Concrete that sucks — CO2, that is

There’s a story in Technology Review about a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based company called Carbon Sense Solutions that has found a way to make precast concrete products CO2-sucking vacuums. The interesting thing about concrete is that over hundreds of years they absorb CO2, a natural process called carbonation. The amount of absorption partially offsets the CO2 emissions that result from the calcination of limestone during the manufacture of cement, which is a key active ingredient of concrete. One problem, however, is that during the earlier stages of carbonation the outer two or three millimetres of the concrete forms a hardened crust that significantly slows down CO2 absorption. What Carbon Sense claims to have done is packed hundreds of years of carbonation into as little as one hour, using a curing process that consumes dramatically less energy than conventional heat/steam curing (see presentation here). In fact, compared to steam curing, company CEO Robert Niven says his approach — building on 40 years of research at McGill University — uses up to 44 per cent less energy and 39 per cent less water.

Now, it only works with precast concrete products — i.e. prefab tunnels, manholes, septic tanks, walls, blocks and beams. Even concrete wind-turbine towers are precast. This represents between 10 to 15 per cent of the North American concrete market, which is predominantly ready-mix (i.e. construction folks mix it and mould it on site). In some European countries, however, precast is closer to 40 per cent of the market. Given we’re talking about a $125-billion global market annually, even 10 per cent is a market worth pursuing.

Frankly, it sounds too good to be true, given the cement and concrete industry represent more than 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions and something has to be done about it. If all precast operations used Carbon Sense’s process, it would sequester as much as 20 per cent of those emissions in concrete, says Niven. How could this be? Because a precast plant alone wouldn’t have enough emissions to feed the process. To maximize CO2 absortion, a precast plant would have to get more CO2 from the flue stacks of neighbouring industrial facilities — assuming ideal logistics. Niven also says the process could take advantage of a plan, originating from Alberta, to build a CO2 pipeline across Canada that would feed enhanced oil recovery projects and other industrial uses (yeah, when donkeys fly).

There’s no shortage of innovative companies tackling the concrete problem. CalStar, Calera, CO2 Solution — they all have their own interesting twist to greening up concrete’s dirty image. Hopefully one of them, 10 or 20 years from now, will prove that they have the secret sauce that matters. Niven says a pilot plant at a precast concrete facility in Nova Scotia should be announced shortly, and there are plans for a second pilot plant with a precast manufacturer in British Columbia.

Niven wouldn’t go into too much detail about the process, citing proprietary concerns, so let’s just hope the preliminary results from his first two pilot projects go far toward supporting his claims.