Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Semiconductor Innovation Requires National Support

Henry Kressel, senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, says the US is in need of a public innovation policy. The industry can no longer afford running the big labs that are needed for innovating materials, other structures are needed, involving an important role for national government. Kressel was instrumental for the development of semiconductor lasers and solar cells.

The Crankiest Geek sees television's tommorrow

John C.Dvorak, legendary technology commentator and host of “Cranky Geeks” comments on future of Broadcast television being replaced by IPTV.

Google starts bubble-blowing

Statistics can seem numbing -- column after column of grey, boring numbers. But statistics can also be represented through animations, such as colorful bubbles dancing over your screen.

Last year, Google aquired the statistics animation program, Trendalyzer, from the Swedish Gapminder Foundation. Now the basic functions are available as small software gadget, that lets you put color and motion to your own datasets.

Trendalyzer started as the brainchild of Hans Rosling, professor in international health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. He searched for a way to tell his students that the “world was getting better;" that differences in standard of living, life expectancy at birth, child mortality and so on were diminishing. His son Ola Rosling and Ola’s wife Anna Rosling-Ronnlund developed the animation software.

At the TED conferences in 2006 and 2007 Hans Rosling got a lot of attention for his lectures on world development, in which he used Trendalyser to illustrate the message. (He also got some extra attention for swallowing a sword-- or to be precise, a 19th century Swedish army rifle bayonet -- on stage.)

The development of Trendalyzer was organized by the Gapminder Foundation and financed with grants mainly from the Swedish International Development Agency. Last spring, Google acquired Trendalayzer from Gapminder; the company also retained the services of Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund.

The two Swedes have since worked on a new version of Trendalayzer that can be used to visualize and animate all sorts of datasets, from stockmarket statistics to population demographics. Last week Google released the group's first product, a small gadget that can be used together with the Google.doc spreadsheet.

“It is very basic," says Ms. Rosling-Rönnlund. "But you get bubbles and color, you get motion and you can use your own data."

Solar Cells 2.0: in clothing, camping gear -- everywhere?

Imagine being able to charge your laptop on a two-week trek, far away from electrical outlets. That will be possible by the end of the year using organic technology, claims the plastic solar cell company Konarka. What would that mean for people in the underdeveloped world, who live far away from electricity grids?

Konarka is right now building a plant for mass production of printable electronics. The company's technology is flexible plastic photovoltaics, which converts the sunlight into electricity that can be used directly to power electrical gadgets.

It will be possible to weave these fibers into clothes – to keep you warm in the winter – or to cover electronics with them.

This new generation of organic solar cells emerged from the discovery of conductive polymers. In 2000, Professor Alan Heeger at University of California, Santa Barbara, won the Nobel prize in chemistry for this breakthrough.

Conductive polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity, can be liquified into inks and printed onto materials like plastic film. They are manufactured using nano techniques.

After his discovery, Mr. Heeger set out to commercialize the organic photovoltaics and co-founded Konarka.

Konarka is one of many companies who are working intensely on finding the right molecular structure for plastic solar cells, making them cheaper, more effective and mass producible. Konarka says it will be first to market its findings, but critics are saying that the company has raised tens of millions in venture capital and is lagging behind its time table -- and still has no products.

Plastic solar cells have been called the next generation solar technology and have many potential advantages over classical solar cells, made out of silicon wafers, as well as the thin film-approaches.

Silicon cells expensive

"The traditional solar cells are made out of big silicon crystals," says Paul Alivisatos, a pioneer in nano solar technology. "They need to be perfect and huge. You can compare them to a diamond. If you want to coat the desert with diamonds, then that is going to be hard to do."

Hard and costly. Prices for silicon have risen sharply in recent years, partly because manufacturers of the material did not anticipate the spike in demand for silicon solar cells.
“So we thought, instead of coating diamonds so big, what is the absolute smallest size we can make?” asks Mr. Alivisatos, who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He and his Berkeley research team are working on nanocrystals, both in thin film and in plastic solar cells.

Thin film cheaper but less effective

Thin film -- the other competing solar technology for home users -- mostly uses layers of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium CIGS, as a semiconductor. Thin film is not as effective at converting light into electricity as silicon solar cells, but it is cheaper. Thin film is more susceptible to moisture than silicon though, and therefore wears out more easily. On the other hand, silicon is fragile. Hail is the main reason silicon solar panels break in the field.

What Konarka is attempting to do in organic photovoltaics, companies like Global Solar and Nanosolar have already achieved with thin film technology -- the flexible solar cells. You can order Global Solar’s flexible, portable chargers for $14-15 per watt online. It comes with a plug the same as a car cigarette lighter. To charge a cell phone, you need a cable appropriate for your phone brand (i.e. Nokia) which can be plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Charging laptops is not yet possible. The portable charger lacks enough power.

Although Global solar still has a long way to go in some of its technologies, its vice president of sales and marketing, Tim Teich, is optimistic. “Thin film won’t take over the silicon industry, but we will burst the market with news in architectural- and building integrated products,” he says.

Thin film technology has the edge in maturity over plastic solar cells. But the technology is grappling with the problem of durability, just like plastic photovoltaics. A lot of the thin film companies are spreading the CIGS on glass, which is dense enough to solve the durability problem, but at the same time is the most expensive part of the solar cell.

Another problem is the rising cost of the material Indium, one part of the CIGS formula. “Some people say Indium will run out in 7 years, other say they will discover more with mining,” says Nathan Lewis, a professor of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology.

Whether the mineral is scarce or not is debatable, but researchers are trying to find substitutes for it anyway.

Efficiency solved problem

Ability to harvest the energy of the sun is the most important factor in photovoltaics. But it is not always the most relevant parameter for judging the competitiveness of the different solar technologies. “In some sense the ability of making an efficient solar cell is a solved problem," says Mr. Alivisatos. "Today we have reached even 42 percent efficiency.”

“The big problem is to make a lot" of very efficient solar cells, he continues. "This is very, very hard to do. Nobody knows how to make huge amounts of solar cells."

Instead of efficiency, solar-cell technologies are often measured in dollar per watt, or the cost of the effect they can deliver. The benchmark is one dollar per watt, which is the price for conventional energy sources like coal. Crystal silicon panels of good quality cost 3.50-4.50 dollar per watt. Thin film on the lower end has a price of 2.60-3.30 dollar per watt, according to the thin film company Global Solar.

“Cost per watt is not what matters in the end, because people are buying electricity, not capacity,” says Mr. Lewis.

In order to calculate the cost of the electricity - or energy – that the different photovoltaics deliver, two important aspects should be taken into account: their lifetime and the cost of installation. The installation costs, including hooking up the cells on the roof and attaching them to the grid, actually amounts to half of the cost for the solar cells, in traditional silicon wafers. Traditional wafers last for 30 years, but thin film and plastic solar are still far behind. In order to compensate for that, they have to be cheap to manufacture.

Finding new material

One of the research groups trying to lower the manufacturing cost of plastic solar cells is led by Michael McGehees, a professor at Stanford University's Materials Science and Engineering Department.

On a recent visit to Mr. McGehees' group, there is a buzzing sound from in the Gabelle laboratory for advanced materials, where the group conducts its experiments.

“Here are the glove boxes,” says Alex Mayer, a post-doctorate researcher who is giving a tour of the lab to a visitor.

These are six-feet tall metallic vacuum boxes, into which scientists are sticking their arms into big latex gloves in order to carry the tests. The researchers are trying to find the most effective materials for the active layer of the plastic solar cell. And they are trying to replace Indium Tinoxe, which is the most common transparent conductor that the plastic cells are being coated with.

“You see, different materials absorb different portions of the light," says Mr. Mayer. "We are stacking them onto one another in order to get the best possible effect."

The plastic solar cells that the research group is working on have huge potential, but also face big challenges. One of the toughest problems is the low efficiency, right now at 5.4 percent.

Mr. Heeger, the Santa Barbara professor, succeeded in constructing a more efficient organic cell, a so-called tandem cell. He put two light absorbing layers on top of one another, shaping the cell like a double hamburger. The construction raised the efficiency of light harvesting to 6.5 percent.

Printed electronics the future

But if some of the plastic solar cell problems could be solved, they have the potential to change the world. “Printed electronics is going to be the next wave of electronic products,” says Dan Williams, vice president of product development at Konarka. “People will use printed electronics for displays, battery technology and photovoltaic materials. It is a revolution, I think the whole area of printed electronics is going to explode within four-five years."

The flexibility, light weight and low production cost of organic photovoltaics could make them useful for a wide range of products, which are currently powered by batteries. “Just think about it," Mr. Williams says. "Today the battery is the biggest part in every product, it takes up thirty to fourty percent of the space."

“If we only had a mili part of the power, the gadgets would look differently” he continues.

Mr. Williams hopes that technology development will go hand in hand with the plastic solar cell evolution and that future products will be able to run on much less energy. They would be able to operate through sun power, like some calculators are doing today, or like newer products like for instance One laptop per child-computers.

Konarka’s R&D is today focusing on increasing the durability of the cell, which is now merely five years. The company is trying to discover new encapsulation layers that will better keep moisture out of the cell.

Tesla hits the road

This week Innovation Beat went for a test ride in the all-electric sports car Tesla Roadster that went into full-scale production a week ago.

The silver-gray car is one of 27 prototypes being built prior to production. It accelerated promptly from 0 to 60 mph in several seconds as we entered highway 101 near Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos.

Tesla assembles the car at a leisurely one-a-week pace at its production site in Hethel, England. The goal is to speed up assembly to 30 cars per week in a couple of weeks, reaching a total output of 600 vehicles for the 2008 calendar year.

The cars are shipped from England to Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos, California, where the battery pack, transmission and motor are installed. First deliveries are expected in April, with the very first car going to Tesla’s co-founder Martin Eberhard. His car is to be painted dark gray with orange stripes.

Some eye-catching paint is probably a good idea, since the car itself does not generate attention by making loud noice. Compared to a roaring muscle car like the Mustang Shelby, a ride with the Tesla feels like a stroll on the beach in Half Moon Bay – the wind is the only sound you hear.

About 900 people have placed deposits for the $100,000 car. Tesla hopes to increase yearly production to 1,800 cars in 2009.

The 27 prototype vehicles are just made for test purposes. If you expected they would sell as discounted product samples, I am sorry to disappoint you. Another video of the test ride might cheer you up:

Silicon Valley is going solar

Tanja Aitamurto, Moi Mukkolat Photo Agency, for Innovation Beat

Anyone who thought solar energy was all about latte-drinking, Prius-driving green-bums, think again.

Nowadays, solar enthusiasts and clean-tech investors alike only reluctantly speak about the environment. They're in it for the money - and so are the consumers.

"It's kind of funny actually," says Kevin Ruszel, installer for Solar City, as he finishes his work on twelve solar panels atop a roof in San Rafael. "Sometimes we install for people who have two SUV:s standing in their garage, but I guess they just want to save some money."

As far as Solar City's founders Peter and Lyndon Rive -- two brothers from South Africa -- are concerned, there is only one thing you have to watch before going solar - and that is not a movie by Al Gore.

"Just look at your electricity bill," says Lyndon Rive. "In the last years, the prices have gone up with more than six percent each year. And nothing speaks for that to change. We expect solar to be profitable in a non-subsidized environment as early as 2010."

And perhaps the Californians have been scrutinizing their electricity bills lately. Solar City is so busy that their customers have to wait for two months before getting their panels installed. And installers like Kevin Ruszel can cash in.

"I used to work for another solar company," he says while taking a break in the shadow of the ever warmer sun. "But Solar City offered me a higher wage. There is a great demand for people who know how to do this."

Solar City wants to be the "Starbucks of the solar business," as Peter Rive puts it. That means that service and prices are more important than efficient solar panels

"We've actually just started using a new type of panels," Peter goes on. "We install cheaper ones now. They're not as efficient, but that is not the issue. If the customer wants more power, we just install another panel. We rarely have to cover the whole roof anyway."

Solar City is one of the fastest growing solar company in California, and Peter Rive thinks it's the right time to be sprinting.

"At this moment, there is a window of opportunity to establish powerful brands in the solar business," he says.

There is indeed something happening now. Last year saw the biggest amount of cash ever flowing into the clean-tech sector. With more than $ 2.6 billion of investments, the sector has increased eightfold in two years, and most of it is going one place: Silicon Valley.

Why? Well, first of all, the money's already there.

"California has always been in the lead when it comes to venture capital," says Emily Vendell at the National Venture Capital Association, "and the clean-tech sector has all the attributes a venture capitalist is looking for, like public demand and possibilites for innovation."

So the same brains and wallets that sparked the information revolution are now trying to save the world - or at least making money while trying.

Just a few miles from Solar City's offices, a company called Ausra is planning the world's biggest solar-thermo plant. The company's biggest investor is Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. He lured the Australian founders of Ausra to Silicon Valley with a $50 million check.

"California is where the market is," says John O' Donnell, Ausra's executive vice-president. "This is where all the smart and fearless investors are."

Like most other cleantech people in the Bay Area, O'Donnell prefers talking about financial opportunities than about global warming. "When we open up our Las Vegas-factory in May, we will be producing 1000 MW of installations a year," he says. "That's twice the size of anyone else in the industry."

Ausra's business model relies on existing, but cheaper, technology. Importantly, the company's way of storing electricity is cheaper - just simply storing the heat

"It's like a coffee thermos," says O'Donnell. "A coffee thermos stores the same amount of energy as a laptop battery, but it's one hundred times cheaper."

Right now, Ausra is planning a solar farm in San Luis Obispo. The output - 177 MW - is enormous by previous solar standards. That translates to more than 100 new windmills -- and the power plant "only" occupies 484 football fields of farmland.

"With this technology," enthuses O"Donnell, "we can power the entire nation with eight percent of Nevada."

So what about the recession? And what if, for some unforeseen reason, global warming won't be as hip in a few years?

No problem, says the Rive brothers at Solar City. All it takes is for the electricity bills to keep climbing - and people will keep buying solar.

Says Pete Rive, "We've had some customers who've asked us: 'You don't believe in this global warming bull, do you?'"

John O'Donnell's Ausra uses stored thermal heat to
power the grid during peak-hours.