Energy Department Awards Picasolar $800,000 to Increase Solar Cell Efficiency

A Northwest Arkansas startup affiliated with the University of Arkansas has received the SunShot Tier 1 Incubator Award, the U.S. Department of Energy announced today.

The $800,000 award to Picasolar Inc., through the Energy Department's SunShot Initiative, will be matched with $200,000 from Picasolar, bringing the one-year project to $1 million. The award is the result of the company’s patent-pending process to increase the efficiency of solar cells and could lead to new high-tech manufacturing jobs in Northwest Arkansas.

The SunShot awards are the most prestigious and competitive grants a solar startup can receive, said Douglas Hutchings, Picasolar’s chief executive officer.

“We are very pleased to receive the continuation of funding from the SunShot Incubator Program,” Hutchings said. “The goal of the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative is to get solar energy to 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020 and in doing so making solar one of the most cost-effective forms of electricity generation on the planet. It is exciting to think that a technology invented in Fayetteville by U of A graduates can play a big role in this process.”

Picasolar’s grant was one of 20 to small businesses totaling more than $14 million that were announced today by Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz.

“As U.S. solar installation increases and the cost of solar electricity continues to decline, solar energy is becoming an increasingly affordable clean energy option for more American families and businesses,” Moniz said. “The projects announced today will help the U.S. solar energy industry continue to grow, ensuring America can capitalize on its vast renewable energy sources, cut carbon pollution, and continue to lead in the world in clean energy innovation.”

One year ago, Silicon Solar Solutions, Picasolar’s sister company, received $500,000 for a SunShot Tier 0 Incubator Award, which is targeted for early-stage assistance to help startups commercialize inventions while encouraging private sector investment. The new award is intended to accelerate the transition of early stage functional prototypes to manufacturing and commercially relevant prototype made in the lab.

Picasolar and Silicon Solar Solutions are Genesis Technology Incubator clients at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park.

Picasolar will continue to work with its research partners at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Roth & Rau, a German solar energy company, and has added China-based Yingli Solar, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, as a partner on the new award.

“The SunShot program is phenomenal,” Hutchings said. “In addition to the financial support, we get to work with world-class scientists at Department of Energy national labs for third-party validation and technical expertise. This award is a huge milestone for Picasolar.”

Hutchings founded Silicon Solar Solutions in 2008 while a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. In January 2013, the company submitted an application for a full patent on a self-aligned hydrogenated selective emitter for N-type solar cells. The emitter, invented by Seth Shumate, a doctoral candidate at the U of A and chief technology officer for Picasolar, could improve the efficiency of solar cells by 15 percent and could save an average-sized solar panel manufacturer $120 million annually. It makes the panels, and solar energy, more affordable for consumers, Hutchings said.