The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday awarded one of its SunShot Incubator Awards to Silicon Solar Solutions LLC, a start-up company affiliated with the University of Arkansas. The award is the result of the company’s patent-pending process to increase the efficiency of solar cells.
The award could lead to new high tech manufacturing jobs in Northwest Arkansas in the future.
Silicon Solar Solutions received $500,000 for the award, which is targeted for early-stage assistance to help startup companies commercialize inventions while encouraging private sector investment.
Silicon Solar Solutions, a Genesis Technology Incubator client at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, is the first company in the state to receive a SunShot Incubator Award.
“This is the most prestigious and competitive award a solar startup can receive,” said Douglas Hutchings, Silicon Solar Solutions CEO. “Our goal is to prove our technology on industrial cells and work towards Arkansas-based manufacturing of the equipment.”
U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor sent messages Tuesday to congratulate the company on being recognized. Pryor called Silicon Solar Solutions a leader in the nation when it comes to solar energy technology. Boozman recognized the importance of the work, saying it will help ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and gas.
Hutchings founded Silicon Solar Solutions in 2008 while a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. In January, 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, chief technology officer for Silicon Solar Solutions, could improve the efficiency of solar cells by 15 percent and could save an average-sized solar panel manufacturer $120 million annually, making the panels, and solar energy, more affordable for consumers, Hutchings said.
If successful, the emitter represents the single largest technology leap in solar power in 40 years, Hutchings said. The tool will be marketed through Picasolar Inc., a sister company also located at the research park that shares the same senior management and board of directors as Silicon Solar Solutions.
Hutchings said the company’s next move is to raise $2 million from private investors or strategic partners. This would allow his company to partner with an equipment manufacturer to prove if the technology can be scaled for production in the marketplace.
“We’ve proven the process in the lab using low-cost manufacturing techniques and we’re confident the process will work in the marketplace.”
The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort to drive innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Department of Energy supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour.
Since 2007, more than 50 American start-ups have participated in the SunShot Incubator Program – attracting more than $1.7 billion in private sector backing, or nearly $18 for every $1 of government support. The Energy Department is investing more than $12 million across 17 companies to help commercialize a wide range of technologies and services– from online tools that can map a rooftop’s solar potential in seconds to automated installation systems for utility scale photovoltaic plants.
“The tremendous growth in the U.S. solar industry over the past few years is helping to pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future that protects our air and water and provides affordable clean energy to more and more Americans,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “Responsible development of all of America’s rich energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and will help ensure America’s continued leadership in clean energy innovation.”
Hutchings earned a doctorate in microelectronics-photonics at the University of Arkansas in 2010. Shumate is a doctoral student in the microelectronics-photonics program, offered by the College of Engineering and J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.