Hot electrons? Surface plasmons? Thin-film solar innovation marches on

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Thin-film solar startup PI Energy didn’t disclose the photovoltaic materials system it’s been commercializing, other than to say that it wasn’t CIGS, CdTe, or perovskites.

What does that leave? Organic solar cells? Unconventional solar materials such as iron pyrite, copper zinc tin sulfide or copper oxide? Plasmonics? Metamaterials? Some black swan pyro-nano-quantum technology? Silicon?

The company didn’t disclose the efficiency of the small cells it has been testing. (All of this non-disclosure made for an insipid interview with the CEO.)

PI Energy is developing a flexible solar panel which can be produced with a roll-to-roll manufacturing process using earth-abundant and non-toxic materials and claims that it has “built hundreds of prototypes for our nanomaterial PV technology…Our goal is to produce the first integrated PV material of the current generation design in early 2020.”

The startup has raised approximately $14 million over nine years from “private investors, mostly family offices with direct experience in renewable energy markets.” The company has also crowdsourced $200,000 on Start Engine.

PI Energy’s design does have a “nano metallic layer,” according to its website. The company has reputable people on its board of directors and advisory board. Patents authored by some of the founding team involve hot electrons and plasmonic-enhanced thin-film solar.

Phil Layton, CEO of PI Energy, spoke with pv magazine. He said it would be “Foolish to try to compete with c-Si as a small startup” and “So, we’ve focused for the last ten years more on what the market is missing.”

Layton spoke of targeting “unmet markets” such as the rooftops of electric delivery vehicles and buses that need flexible and light-weight solar for range extension. He suggested that buildings such as data centers need a lightweight PV material — as those roofs can’t tolerate the weight of racked and ballasted silicon panels.

He emphasized that the firm is making use of an “earth-abundant, non-toxic and durable material.”

Despite the massive scale and economics of the silicon industry, despite pandemics, and despite the long list of defunct thin-film aspirants — entrepreneurs are compelled to search for new solutions. It’s a reason for hope in dark times.

Here’s that list of defunct thin-film solar companies.

  • TSMC (CIGS) closed
  • OptiSolar (a-Si on a grand scale)
  • Senergen (depositing silane onto metallurgical-grade Si substrates) closed
  • Signet Solar (a-Si) bankrupt
  • Sunfilm (a-Si) bankrupt
  • Wakonda (GaAs) acquired by Siva, Siva shut down
  • EPV Solar (a-Si) bankrupt
  • Solyndra (CIGS) bankrupt
  • Ascent Solar (CIGS) acquired by TFG Radiant
  • Calyxo (CdTe) acquired by Solar Fields from Q-Cells
  • HelioVolt (CIGS) acquired by Korea’s SK Innovationness
  • NetCrystal (silicon on flexible substrate)
  • Abound Solar (CdTe) bankrupt
  • AQT (CIGS) closed
  • Ampulse (thin silicon) closed
  • ECD (a-Si) bankrupt
  • Flexcell (a-Si roll-roll BIPV) closed
  • Gadir Solar (a-Si PV) Spain-based customer of Oerlikon Solar closed
  • G24i (DSCs) bankrupt in 2012, re-emerged as G24i Power
  • Inventux (a-Si) bankrupt
  • Konarka (OSCs) bankrupt
  • Odersun (CIGS) bankrupt
  • Pramac (a-Si panels built with equipment from Oerlikon) insolvent
  • Schuco (a-Si) shutting down its a-Si business
  • Sencera (a-Si) closed
  • Soltecture (CIGS BIPV) bankrupt
  • Sharp (a-Si)
  • Solibro (CIGS) Q-Cells unit acquired and closed by China’s Hanergy
  • Scheuten Solar (BIPV) bankrupt, then acquired by Aikosolar
  • Avancis (CIGS) discontinuing production
  • Honda Soltec (CIGS thin-film modules) closing
  • Nanosolar (CIGS) closed
  • Solarion (CIGS)  bankrupt
  • Willard & Kelsey (CdTe panels) bankrupt
  • GE-Primestar (CdTe technology acquired from PrimeStar) acquired by First Solar
  • Global Solar Energy (CIGS) acquired and closed by Hanergy
  • MiaSolé (CIGS) acquired and closed by China’s Hanergy
  • Alta Devices (GaAs) acquired and closed by China’s Hanergy
  • NuvoSun (CIGS) acquired by Dow
  • Wuerth Solar (CIGS line)
  • HelioVolt (CIGS thin-film PV) closed
  • Masdar PV (a-Si) closed its SunFab-based amorphous silicon PV factory in Germany.
  • TEL (a-Si) withdrew from a-Si solar
  • Xunlight (a-Si)