3rd September 2023

Injecting ‘quantum dots’ into solar panels

New solar industry deal could propel NM startup into mass manufacturing UbiQD Chief Product Officer Matt Bergren holds a piece of quantum-dot laced luminescent glass that the company makes. Eddie Moore/Journal A new “joint development agreement” that New Mexico-based Ubiquitous Quantum Dots signed in August with global solar-panel maker First Solar Inc. could soon convert the local startup into a mass supplier of quantum-dot technology. Since launching in 2014, the Los Alamos-based company, UbiQD Inc., has worked to turn the nanoscale, three-dimensional structures known as quantum dots into sunlight-harvesting machines. It’s already using them to make solar-generating windows. And, among other things, it’s created plastic row covers for crops that are imbedded with quantum dots to accelerate greenhouse plant growth by manipulating the sun’s rays. Now, First Solar wants UbiQD (pronounced “ubiquity”) to directly integrate its quantum dots into that company’s solar panels to increase the amount of electricity its panels can generate. Through the new agreement, announced Aug. 15, First Solar will help finance the additional engineering and modification work needed to adapt UbiQD’s technology to create a quantum-dot-laced plastic film that could easily be integrated into First Solar’s existing manufacturing process as a “drop-in” component, said UbiQD founder and CEO Hunter McDaniel. Agreement details are proprietary. But McDaniel said it represents at least $1 million in financing from First Solar, making it UbiQD’s “largest deal in company history” in terms of the dollar amount. More importantly, it could create a direct gateway into the mainstream solar industry via a future supply partnership with one of the industry’s global leaders, thrusting UbiQD into mass manufacturing based in New Mexico. “We’re working now to create that drop-in process to integrate our technology with the manufacturing materials that First Solar is already using,” McDaniel told the Journal. “Under the agreement, First Solar is providing support for us to do that work. But when it’s 100% ready to go, First Solar will need a large quantity of material to also be ready, so we’re developing that manufacturing capacity alongside our work to fine-tune our technology.” Assuming the current agreement successfully blossoms into a formal supply partnership, it could propel UbiQD nearly overnight into a major industrial green-tech company, given the immense size of First Solar’s needs. The publicly traded firm has massive manufacturing operations in the U.S. and overseas, and is currently investing billions to expand its domestic capacity under the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which provides substantial tax credits to entice industry to rapidly build out the U.S. manufacturing base for solar and other renewable technologies. Getting a grasp on First Solar’s leading position in global photovoltaic manufacturing helps put the deal in perspective, said Greg Bohannon, managing partner of Greenrock Capital, a private investment advisory firm with offices in San Francisco and Santa Fe that has directly led financing deals for many utility-scale solar projects involving First Solar. “This is the largest U.S. manufacturer of solar panels and one of the top 10 in the world,” Bohannon told the Journal. “We’re talking about a global leader.” First Solar, which already operates sprawling solar panel factories in Ohio, announced a $370 million investment there last fall to build a new research-and-development facility focused on improving its technology and increasing the electric-generating efficiency of its solar panels. First Solar itself is careful to not publicly discuss its strategies, plans and intentions, with strict limitations on what UbiQD can reveal about the joint development agreement. In fact, in the Aug. 15 announcement, the company only said it’s interested in the “potential use” of UbiQD’s technology. “As we work towards developing the next generation of photovoltaics, we are exploring a range of enhancements that could allow us to convert more sunlight into energy,” First Solar Chief Technology Officer Markus Gloeckler said in a statement. “We are interested in the potential use of quantum dots in optimizing the absorption of light and look forward to continuing our work with UbiQD on exploring this possibility.” First Solar and UbiQD have been working together in stealth mode since early 2022 to demonstrate that UbiQD’s technology can not only enhance First Solar panel efficiency, but that it can be fairly easily integrated into the company’s manufacturing base. For First Solar to now move to a higher-level development agreement with UbiQD is very revealing, Bohannon said. “For them to select UbiQD and its quantum dots means a lot,” Bohannon said. “It sends an important signal to the marketplace, especially since their collaborative work has been going on for a while. First Solar sees a lot of innovation and has many potential partners, so for them to announce this specifically with UbiQD is a really strong signal.” Quantum dots First Solar is not the only entity exploring the benefits of quantum dots in solar generation, and UbiQD itself has made significant progress in developing and deploying quantum-dot-laced film for use in solar electric production and other applications. Quantum dots — which measure about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair — manipulate light in unique ways, absorbing it and emitting it back out in specific colors. They’re used today in everything from transistors and sunscreens to LCD televisions, tablets, smartphones, lasers and even medical applications. But traditionally, they’ve been extremely expensive to make, and they’re usually composed of toxic materials. UbiQD’s product, however, is made through an alternative, inexpensive process that uses low-cost and nontoxic elements. McDaniel helped develop that new process as a post-doc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He then licensed it from LANL, along with complimentary technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to make and market next-generation quantum dots for many different applications. That includes plastic crop covers for greenhouses that the company now sells in the U.S. and elsewhere. The dot-laced film shifts sunshine into a red-and-orange light spectrum that mimics late-summer-like sun rays year round. That’s considered the most potent time of year for plants, because they sense winter coming and grow faster. Extensive testing and use have shown the row covers can increase greenhouse plant production by 20% or more depending on the crop, and the company is now preparing to roll out a full roof covering for entire greenhouses this fall. It’s also deploying quantum-dot films on windows for solar generation, potentially converting windows into self-generating structures where the dots channel photons to solar cells attached to window frames. That technology is now deployed in a number of places in New Mexico and other states, including one building at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. And, last year, it signed a partnership with Canadian solar panel manufacturer Heliene Inc. to integrate UbiQD’s quantum-dot film into Heliene panels for greenhouses. That could provide double the bang by offering both plant crop growth acceleration plus solar generation. Thin-film solar panels Meanwhile, First Solar is a leading supplier of thin-film solar cells, which differ significantly from traditional solar-cell technology. Nearly all solar cells today are made using silicon, an abundant, inexpensive element that’s found in sand. The silicon provides the essential semiconductor material needed to turn sunlight into electricity by converting photons into electrons. Manufacturers use a chemical process to refine the material and turn it into crystalline silicon blocks, which they then cut into very thin wafers to make solar cells. Those cells are then strung together to make modules, or panels. In contrast, thin-film technology uses alternative semiconductor materials like cadmium telluride to make solar cells. Rather than creating a crystal wafer, thin-film manufacturers like First Solar coat a thin layer of cadmium telluride directly onto a sheet of glass or plastic to make solar cells and panels. That process is easier than manufacturing crystalline-silicon cells, giving thin-film companies like First Solar a significant cost advantage. In addition, with all silicon cells today made outside the U.S., panel makers must import them, raising costs even more. But despite those advantages, thin-film cells are somewhat less efficient than crystalline-silicon ones in terms of how much sunlight they can convert to electricity. As a result, First Solar is constantly seeking to improve its efficiency, and it’s now exploring the use of quantum dots to achieve that. “First Solar is the thin-film technology leader today, but they operate in a very competitive environment with crystalline-silicon manufacturers,” Bohannon said. “First Solar has already substantially raised its thin-film efficiency. But if it can integrate quantum dots into its panels, it could increase efficiency even more and potentially close that efficiency gap with crystalline-silicon manufacturers.” McDaniel declined to discuss how much additional efficiency UbiQD’s quantum-dot technology can add to First Solar panels. But he said it’s “very significant” compared with other types of module enhancements First Solar could pursue to improve electric output. Fine-tuning the dot technology There’s still work to do to fully adapt UbiQD’s quantum-dot film for drop-in integration into First Solar’s manufacturing process, McDaniel said. But no change in the factory process is required on First Solar’s part. “They currently use a polymer film that protects the solar cells and glues it all together in panels,” McDaniel said. “They already buy sheets of clear plastic for that. So, rather than buying that, they would instead buy plastic film with quantum dots in it.” UbiQD will need to tweak its quantum-dot imbedded plastic to specifically manipulate the spectrum of light it emits to focus on maximum electric generation as compared to, say, the light colors produced by its greenhouse film, which is aimed at accelerating plant growth. It also needs to ensure the long-term stability of the new quantum-dot film while still maintaining a low-cost production process. But UbiQD has already built the manufacturing foundation for all of that since launching in 2014. “This is a new approach, but it’s actually a pretty simple, low-cost change with an outsized benefit for improving solar-panel generation,” McDaniel said. “All the work we’ve already done to build our manufacturing process to create stable, low-cost, light and efficient materials for (quantum-dot) films is all largely applicable to this new focus on utility-scale solar generation for First Solar. We can go much faster now in doing this than if we were starting from scratch.” The joint development agreement shows that First Solar has developed significant confidence in UbiQD’s technology, especially given its scientific base coming out of LANL and MIT and all the additional development work UbiQD has put into it, Bohannon said. “This is now about how to integrate UbiQD’s quantum dots into First Solar’s existing product,” Bohannon said. “It’s not about questions regarding the quantum dot-technology itself.” Scaling up But once UbiQD’s drop-in component is ready to deploy, it will require a major scale-up in manufacturing capacity by UbiQD to then produce the amount of quantum dots and film needed to meet First Solar demand. Through its current investment in new factories and expansion of existing ones, First Solar aims to have more than 20 gigawatts of annual global manufacturing capacity in place by 2025. For perspective, that would represent enough potential panel production to power at least 6 million homes, and possibly a lot more, according to local industry experts consulted by the Journal. “We might need to supply up to 1 billion square feet of (quantum-dot) material to meet First Solar demand,” McDaniel said. “We have nowhere near that capacity now, so we’re immediately working on how to build that out.” The company currently produces its quantum-dot technology at a 9,000-square-foot facility in Los Alamos, where 25 of the company’s 28 employees currently work. It expects to hire another four or five people this year, and possibly 10 more next year, while also scouting for potential facility sites in New Mexico. “Depending on financing, next year we’ll look to build a new manufacturing facility,” McDaniel said. “We want to keep everything here in New Mexico, so we’re only looking at local sites in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.” That would significantly add to New Mexico’s manufacturing base for solar and renewable energy, which is growing exponentially, in large part thanks to Inflation Reduction Act incentives that aim to encourage a lot more private investment in domestic manufacturing. Last month, Maxeon Solar Technologies — a global leader in solar cell and panel production — announced a $1 billion investment to build a massive manufacturing plant in Albuquerque that could employ 1,800 people when it comes online in 2025. “The Inflation Reduction Act is driving a domestic clean energy manufacturing boom,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Journal in an email. “Nowhere is that clearer than in New Mexico. I applaud UbiQD and First Solar for their work to unlock bold solutions to the climate crisis, support stable careers that New Mexicans can build their families around, grow our economy, and keep our state at the center of an American-made clean energy future.” UbiQD is on the verge of breakout growth, said Jordan Clancy, general partner in the New Mexico Vintage Fund, which invested in UbiQD early this year. “This is a big deal,” Clancy told the Journal. “It may not be as big as Maxeon, but in the long run, it could be. Over time, UbiQD could become one of New Mexico’s larger employers.” Read the original article here.