Here’s a (likely apocryphal) tale told in thethin-film solar manufacturing world:
An unnamed CIGS solar startup was doing process development and ranout of the de-ionized water used as a cleaning agent in theirmanufacturing process. That particular day, they substituted straightCalifornia tap water in their process and rather than ruin theirexperiment – the efficiency of the new PV material jumped a fewpercentage points.
The firm reacted by storing hundred gallon tanks of that day’s tap water for later analysis to determine whatmystery substance was improving their process.
The point isthat there are countless variables to control in a solar cell, whetherit be silicon, CIGS or cadmium telluride. And exploring those material, temperature, thickness and control variables in a systematic, rigorousmanner can be beyond the capabilities of many solar firms. Andcertainly most start-ups.
Intermolecular changes that, maybe. I spoke with Craig Hunter, the Vice President andGeneral Manager, Solar and Energy Technologies (formerly with AppliedMaterials’ SunFab group) about the 120 person company. I also spokewith Tony Chiang, the CTO and the CEO, David Lazovsky.
Forfive years, VC-funded Intermolecular has partnered with semiconductorfirms and more recently, solar firms in a collaborative developmentmodel to discover and hone new processes.
As reported earlier, Intermolecular claims it mastered is the abilityto do many experiments on a single wafer — up to 72 experiments percycle. These are essentially miniaturized and site-isolatedexperiments. As an example: a wafer can be run with 18 different silicon wafer texturing processes, each with four different passivationtechniques.
In a project that would take another company months and tax theiranalytical capabilities, Intermolecular can have a throughput ofhundreds of uniquely characterized solar cells per week. Intermolecular has the flexibility to change gases, targets, chemistries and integration schemes. This is combined with automated probing and an "Informatics" software system that in many ways issimilar to the techniques employed in biotech.
In turn, Intermolecular gets a royalty from products sold developedwith their technology. But will solar or chip companies go for it?Semiconductor companies only reluctantly ever license technology.England’s ARM is one of the few successful examples. Rambus and Tesserahad to sue several large companies before establishing a royalty stream. Solar companies are similarly conservative.
Intermolecular is funded by CMEA, Redpoint and USVP. This trio ofventure firms also funded cylindrical CIGS IPO-aspirant Solyndra. CMEA has a related portfolio firm – Wildcat Discovery Technologies which rather than look for new processes, instead searches for newmaterials for use in photovoltaics, batteries and in carbon capture.
According to Intermolecular, solar technology is likesemiconductor technology in its ability to benefit from combinatorialR&D work flows The innovation at Intermolecular is "in applying acombinatorial methodology to device development."
Anotherinnovation is in providing this semiconductor process development as aservice. Note that Intermolecular doesn’t focus on selling itsequipment. The company sells its expertise for a fee and then, andhere’s the interesting revenue part — it looks for a small royalty onthe higher performance end-product. On the premise that a bump inefficiency, a reduction in cost or a more consistent and fasterthroughput is worth a lot to any solar firm. It’s a unique approach.
The firm has already started working on projects aimed atimproving alkaline texturing of monocrystalline silicon wafers anddeveloping a more durable, lower cost antireflective coating for PVglass. The latest initiative getting underway is a development programfocused on making high efficiency CIGS more manufacturable. The company is also considering programs targeting optimized transparent conductors and efficiency enhancement for earth-abundant PV materials like CZTS. Longer term ambitions include LEDs, thinfilm batteries, super-capacitors, and electrochromics.
The crew at Intermolecular is smart — 50 percent of their 120 people have PhDs. And by all accounts — their semiconductor business isrolling along. But there is a difference in the nature of semiconductor design and photovoltaic design and it’s a difference that could limitIntermolecular’s push into solar power. The IP in a semiconductordesign is about clever layout and intelligent circuit and module designas well as process whereas the IP in a PV cell is often the processitself.
Solar firms might be reluctant to share the entirety of their secretsauce with the good people at Intermolecular.
That said, David Lazovsky, Intermolecular’s CEO, cited Samsung’smulti-billion dollar R&D budget as an indication of theopportunities that await Intermolecular, saying, "It’s still so early in solar."