Oregon BEST Commercialization Grant Funds Concentrated Solar Energy Technology

Oregon BEST (the Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) has awarded one of its Commercialization Grants to an Oregon startup developing a solar energy system that can harvest about 50 percent more energy per square foot of rooftop space on commercial buildings than conventional systems. 

The technology’s cost effective design should have a better return-on-investment for building owners, and the technology roadmap shows the potential to eventually double the energy harvested per square foot when compared to flat plate solar panels.

Corvallis, Ore.-based Inspired Light, LLC has developed a complete solar energy system utilizing three-junction concentrated solar photovoltaic (PV) cells that is already returning efficiency rates reaching 30 percent, said company CEO Frank Cloutier. This compares to the 15 - 18 percent efficiency typical of conventional PV solar panels.

Cloutier is considered the father of the Hewlett Packard inkjet printing technology, which was developed under his lead during his tenure with that company.

To attain 30 percent efficiency, Cloutier said Inspired Light, which currently employs 12 people, took a comprehensive design approach that includes new and novel materials, optical design, tracking and manufacturing processes that allow the system to harvest light with simple and low cost materials, then convert the light using a very small quantity of PV material.  

“Most solar energy research focuses on either low price or high efficiency, but I’ve learned that sometimes you discover breakthroughs when you tackle both of those  simultaneously,” Cloutier said. “So we asked, ‘What if we start over with a clean sheet of paper, and come up with something that’s very efficient and very, very inexpensive to produce?’ ”

This led Inspired Light to start by looking at all aspects of the solar energy generation value chain—from price and efficiency to installation, materials and the space the system occupies on a rooftop.

The $150,000 from Oregon BEST is helping the company address several technical hurdles it has to clear before the product will ready for the market, including an anti-reflective (AR) coating capable of reducing the amount of sunlight reflected off the system.

The AR work is being done by Oregon BEST researcher Chih-hung Chang, an Oregon State University professor of chemical engineering who directs the Oregon Process Innovation Center for Sustainable Solar Cell Manufacturing (OPIC), a signature research facility of Oregon BEST located in a former HP building outside Corvallis.

“There are a few engineering issues with this technology, but they are definitely solvable,” Chang said. “My task is to develop a durable, highly efficient coating that can be manufactured very economically. This is a very exciting project. If the company is successful, I’m successful, and Oregon also benefits.”

In 2011, a $190,000 Oregon BEST investment in the OPIC Lab enabled Chang to purchase and install Flash QE, a high speed characterization tool made by Oregon-based Tau Science that enables solar energy manufacturers to dramatically reduce the time required to test new solar cells. OPIC is the first lab in the world to have a Flash QE system, and the technology has solar energy companies, like Inspired Light, lining up at the lab.

Cloutier said the grant is about more than just the money, because the relationships Oregon BEST is helping his company foster “multiplies” the value of the grant.

“It’s a relatively small amount of funding, but it comes at a time when it makes a big difference in the life of a startup, especially because it’s multiplied several times thanks to the relationships with key players in the marketplace and with solar energy researchers at other Oregon BEST labs,” he said. “This local access is tremendous. If not for these connections, we’d be working with private labs and tools located at a distance, so the process would be much slower and more costly.”

In addition to the OPIC Lab in Corvallis, Inspired Light engineers are also using tools and collaborating with Oregon BEST researchers at the University of Oregon’s SuNRISE PV Lab, another signature research facility of Oregon BEST.

When he talks about the future of Inspired Light, Cloutier draws inspiration from his 32-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard during that company’s heyday. “We want to build a company, here in Oregon, that makes a profound contribution to customers, employees, and shareholders – in that order.”

The grant is part of $1 million in Commercialization Grants that Oregon BEST is awarding this year to speed commercialization of the state’s most promising clean technologies being co-developed by university researchers and private businesses.

“Solar energy has the potential to fill a major part of the world’s energy needs, especially if we can boost the efficiency, so we’re pleased our Commercialization Program is helping an Oregon company solve that challenge and ultimately create jobs and advance Oregon’s position as a cleantech innovator,” said David Kenney, President and Executive Director of Oregon BEST. “It’s wonderful to see the test equipment Oregon BEST invested in at the OPIC Lab being used to help companies like Inspired Light more quickly bring their technologies to the marketplace."

About Inspired Light, LLC
Inspired Light is a solar energy company developing a groundbreaking new approach to solar energy production, with the goal of producing twice the total energy per square foot and at lower cost than conventional fixed silicon solar panels. The ultimate goal is not only to provide a source of completely clean, renewable energy, but one that competes economically with conventional fossil fuels.

About Oregon BEST http://oregonbest.org
The Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) is the nexus for clean technology innovation, building capability, convening collaborations, and accelerating solutions to environmental challenges that deliver prosperity in all corners of Oregon. Oregon BEST brings together Oregon’s significant R&D strengths in clean technology to support the commercialization of new products and services. Since establishment in 2007, Oregon BEST’s 210-plus Member Faculty have generated more than $60 million in research revenue from federal, industry and foundation sources to Oregon. At its four partner universities (Oregon Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, Portland State University, and University of Oregon), Oregon BEST has established a network of seven shared-user research facilities. Oregon BEST Commercialization Grants are awarded to collaborations between entrepreneurs and Oregon BEST member faculty at partner universities. The first four Commercialization Grant awardees from 2011 have secured more than $1.5 million in follow-on funding, more than six times the total grant amount awarded.

Media Contact: Gregg Kleiner, Oregon BEST, 541-740-9654
Sources: David Kenney, Oregon BEST, 503-725-9849; Frank Cloutier, CEO, Inspired Light, 541-760-9165; Chih-hung Chang, Oregon State University, 541-737-8548