Solar Tool Takes Off

Oregon BEST Support Helps Startup Land $1M Grant


When the Oregon Process Innovation Center for Sustainable Solar Cell Manufacturing (OPIC) became the first customer for a new high-tech tool that dramatically cuts the time needed to test solar cells for defects from five minutes to one second, solar energy companies started lining up at the Corvallis lab's door.

They were coming to OPIC, a signature research facility of Oregon BEST, to tap the unique research capabilities of the FlashQE. It's a new tool developed by Tau Science, a small Oregon company founded in 2008 that makes high speed characterization tools to help solar energy manufacturers detect defects and monitor the performance of new solar cells.

A $190,000 grant from Oregon BEST enabled Oregon State University to purchase, install, and operate the FlashQE in the OPIC lab, which is managed by Oregon BEST researchers who are OSU faculty.

"This is the first place in the world this tool was installed," says OPIC lab director Chih-Hung Chang. "That gives our lab very unique capabilities, both for our students and for companies working with us in the lab."

This Oregon BEST investment played a key role in Tau Science recently winning a $1 million Phase II SBIR Grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and has helped build sales for the company

Jamie Hudson, CEO of Tau Science, says the timing of the Oregon BEST funding was ideal time for the startup.

"The Oregon BEST grant breathed life into our new product at a critical time in our developmentā€”that phase where we appear risky because we haven't sold the product and we need a customer in the driver's seat to help us polish the product and retire risk," Hudson says. "That in turn, put us in front of customers more quickly and we've been building on that momentum ever since.'

Among the companies working in the lab are: Pacific Northwest National Lab, Sol Array, Voxtel, Sharp Labs, Inspired Light, CSD Nano, and others.

"Everybody's excited about this tool," Chang says. "It helps advance our university research and better educate our students, and it helps the companies collaborating with us to create jobs."

The QE stands for quantum efficiency, a measurement technique that gives information about the power a solar cell will produce when illuminated by a particular wavelength of light. By utilizing solid state LED technology instead of specialized incandescent light bulbs, the Flash QE is able to test all wavelengths in parallel, enabling the company to attain a phenomenal reduction in the time required to test new solar cells.

"What used to take as much as five minutes we can do in about one second," says Hudson. "This is pretty revolutionary."