By Angela Rose | May 05, 2017
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Microsystems-enabled photovoltaics (MEPV)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Industry: Energy & Environment
Products: Microsystems-enabled photovoltaics (MEPV)
After 16 years working as a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Energy's research and development corporation in Albuquerque, Okandan was ready to bring the MEPV technology he helped develop to market.
"About ten years ago, we were working on some innovative ways to use microelectronics and microsystems technologies and approaches to make solar energy faster, more stable, and cheaper overall," he explains. "We evaluated and developed a lot of different alternatives for putting together high efficiency, high reliability solar systems. As we were concluding this development effort at Sandia, commercialization started looking more and more attractive. We decided to start mPower and take the final result -- Dragon SCALEs -- to market as quickly as we could."
Put simply, Dragon SCALEs, which have been described as "solar glitter," are miniature, lightweight solar cells that can be manipulated to fit into power devices and sensors of any shape or size. They are so flexible that they are virtually unbreakable -- a benefit that, along with the technology's other advantages, Okandan expects to contribute to the next big surge in growth within the solar industry.
"Solar grew by 10 times in the last seven years, both in terms of yearly installed volume and total volume," he says. "That growth was driven by an 80 percent reduction in the costs of cells and modules. But the next 10 times growth isn't going to come from those cost reductions again. Instead, it's going to come from innovation and how we better integrate solar into anything and everything we can think of. That's exactly what mPower Technology is doing."
"The silicon solar cell has good reliability and very low cost," he continues, "but it has two critical limitations. The first is that it is brittle. If you bend and flex it, it will break and shatter. You have to put glass and an aluminum frame around the system to keep it from bending. The second is its low voltage output. If you need high current, you have to put a lot of metal in the system to maintain that current without power loss."
mPower Technology's Dragon SCALEs overcomes these problems. In addition to making their tiny silicon cells unbreakable, Okandan and his team have placed them within a dense, flexible interconnect that is able to generate and maintain high voltage currents.
"Dragon SCALEs are also very resilient," he adds. "If there were to be any mechanical defects in the system, let's say you take out one or two of the small cells, all of the other cells will continue to produce power. All of these benefits really come about because of how we've reformatted silicon for the next phase of solar energy growth."
Because mPower Technology is able to produce their Dragon SCALEs product using the industry's existing tools and supply chain for silicon photovoltaics, Okandan says they haven't had to invest capital to bring new tools or materials on line. This has enabled the company to start supplying early product prototypes to potential customers in high-value markets with fairly low upfront expenses, and will eventually allow them to scale up production to ultra-high volumes in a cost-effective manner.
"We are working with a manufacturing partner in the Bay Area that specializes in building new solar technologies and putting together the necessary tools and manufacturing operations around them for early low volume production and pilot line production," Okandan explains. "This fits very well with our strategy of supplying high value, low volume markets initially -- UAVs, satellites and some portable power applications, for example -- before expanding out to large-scale rooftop solar and light-scale solar farms as our product matures further."
Challenges: Charting the best path to market has been Okandan's biggest challenge. "The current landscape in terms of how things are manufactured, where they are manufactured, and how they are integrated into products is definitely a challenge," he says. "Finding the right partners and putting the right strategic partnerships in place is important so we can make it into the early markets and then the large-scale markets in the best way possible."
Opportunities: Possible applications for mPower Technology's Dragon SCALEs are almost limitless and include drones, satellites, portable power, and a whole lot more. "If you think about it, anywhere that you need power, having the ability to capture the solar power that is available to you is a very attractive proposition," Okandan says.
"Within the aerospace industry, being able to generate as much power as possible with very lightweight, high voltage, and resilient solar systems is a great advantage," he continues. "For example, the UAVs that are in use right now for surveying and precision agriculture have onboard power as their key resource. We provide a way for those drones to fly potentially five times longer and carry more payloads and different payloads than they are currently able to."
In the case of satellites, Dragon SCALEs can be packed very tightly on small constellations. "The high voltage, high reliability, and resilience we provide is a key benefit and will allow more satellites to be launched on a single rocket, simplifying logistics and reducing costs significantly," he says.
Okandan is equally excited about the potential for Dragon SCALEs use in rooftop solar integration. "You'll be able to deploy a solar system very quickly, potentially five times faster than the time it takes to put up a current solar panel on a roof," he explains. "We'll be able to do more of these installations as a result of the reduced cost and much higher speed. It's a very attractive market."
And as far as portable power, Okandan says, "It's an ever-growing market and there are lots of applications for recreational use or even in developing countries and remote areas where there isn't an existing power grid. There's huge potential there, not only monetary but also for improving quality of life."
Needs: "We've been running fairly lean and are looking for additional investments and partnerships," Okandan concludes. "The current conversations and product opportunities are very exciting, so we need to continue to work on those to deliver the technology and products that our customers and partners are looking for."