For Tech's Sake: Lightweight Solar Power for Mobile Users

"When you say 'solar energy,' people think of the Carter administration in the 1970s?big solar panels," said Daniel McGahn, executive vice president of Konarka Technologies Inc.

The Lowell, Mass., start-up company makes lightweight, "wrappable" materials for capturing energy and feeding it into batteries or other power storage systems (www.konarkatech.com). Photovoltaic power, as it is known, is being developed for the burgeoning needs of mobile, transportable computing and communications users. But some integrators and potential partners, McGahn said, shy away from photovoltaic sources because of decades-old perception of solar power's clumsiness and limitations.

"Our biggest barrier is semantics," McGahn said.

Twisting the "Intel Inside" slogan, McGahn foresees his company's materials and technology as "Konarka Outside." Konarka's light-activated power plastic can be coated onto computers, Global Positioning System devices, mobile phones and personal digital assistants or onto carrying cases for such equipment. The thin-film photovoltaic polymer material ? particularly appealing to military users eager to shed weight in field equipment ? is part of what McGahn called "a world without wires," since the power-charging system does not have to be plugged into the electricity grid even when used in conventional office locations.

The efficiency of solar power has other benefits, said Joshua Laurita, energy analyst at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Laurita notes that "solar only feeds direct current, which is particularly useful for recharging (laptop) batteries" because it eliminates the need for hefty transformers to convert alternating current electricity to DC.

Konarka joins a handful of young nanotech solar energy developers seeking to supply light-weight, power-generating capability to IT integrators as well as to communications, consumer electronics and other applications companies ? all of whom are trying to feed the insatiable power demands of mobile users.

Iowa Thin Film Technologies Inc. said its "PowerFilm" products, including "RollableSolar Battery Charger," are being used in OEM components and in integrated building materials, such as tents. Global Solar Energy Inc. has developed commercial and military photovoltaic modules and materials; its flexible "Portable Power Pack" has been field tested in military field exercises (www.iowathinfilm.com; www.globalstar.com).

Other start-ups jockeying for a position in the emerging photovoltaic sector include two Palo Alto, CA, companies: Nanosolar, Inc., which is developing "ubiquitous" solar electricity; and NanoSys Inc., which is collaborating with Matsushita and several un-named U.S. government agencies on its solar-cell technology. (www.nanosolar.com, www.nanosysinc.com)

Although none of these thin-film photovoltaic developers talk about prices ? other than the predictable allusions to "free sunlight" ? Laurita points out that the thin-film and coating technologies offer significant savings compared to earlier solar energy devices. Traditional solar materials cost about $7 to $10 per peak watt (the gauge for such pricing).

"Konarka's technology has the potential to be substantially less than that because its raw materials are cheaper than the solar cell silicon," Laurita said. "The solar industry has been hobbled by the price of silicon and the difficulty in processing it into solar cells. Konarka's technology offers a way around that and offers additional functionality, such as flexibility."

Indeed, flexibility and lightweight portability are factors that attracted the Army and Navy to these new photovoltaic materials, which can be shaped into towel-sized sheets, tent "roofs" and other forms, as well as integrated directly onto the shells of electronics devices. The polymer materials enable coatings to be produced in suitable patterns, including camouflage colors. Various connectors channel the gathered power into standard storage devices?that is, batteries?thus providing an almost constant power supplement, at least in daylight hours.

McGahn declined to describe Konarka's current tests with military users, merely acknowledging that the U.S. Army was an initial funder and first customer.

"There's a strong movement within the military to do recharging in the field," McGahn said. "As we get more electronic, we become more dependent on electricity."

Earlier this year, Oak Ridge National Laboratory teamed up with Konarka as its exclusive partner for research and development of chemistry for solar cells. The Energy Department (Oak Ridge's parent agency) seeks to accelerate the development and commercialization of Konarka's process technology.

Venture capital firms recently staked $18.5 million additional funding in three-year-old Konarka, which holds more than 100 patents and patent applications worldwide. Its staff of 40 people is spread among its Massachusetts and European offices. Konarka recently acquired the solar research projects of Siemens, the German electronics giant.

Perception of Power

As if the old "solar energy" image of the '70s were not sufficient baggage, the new photovoltaic developers are also carrying the fuzzy nomenclature of "nanotechnology" in their current efforts. Because energy generation is not often perceived as nanotech's leading edge application, the horde of companies developing nanotech solar power sources seem to have a double semantic burden.

Nonetheless, the opportunity is immense, especially as government users ? not just military field personnel ? increasingly rely on transportable power supplies. Developers envision that their thin-film polymers will be wrapped onto building materials, such as cubicle walls ? allowing windows and ceiling lights to feed power to new devices, especially in temporary locations and venues where traditional electrical wall sockets are scarce.

Nanotech energy developers are fond of statistics about the vast opportunities they face. Of the worldwide energy production (about four terawatts), barely 1 percent comes from renewable sources, and solar power represents less than 1 percent of that segment, McGahn says.

As portable devices demand more power and as the devices themselves become more multi-functional (further increasing power needs), the value of photovoltaic supplies becomes more apparent. That is one reason for the young companies to dream that their flexible products will move beyond the coatings of devices. Invisible rooftop and tent-top solar collectors and even clothing coated with photovoltaic material are the next steps in this power play.

For IT developers ? especially the growing cadre tasked with implementing efficient, long-lasting mobile applications ? the availability of so many photovoltaic options is becoming a shining ray of light.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com

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