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Submitted by kleinerg on Wed, 02/22/2012 - 8:58pm
Strategic Investment Helping Oregon’s Solar Industry Compete
If you install it, they will come.
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 are 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.
“This is the first place in the world this tool has been installed,” says OPIC lab director Chih-Hung Chang (pictured, below). “That gives our lab very unique capabilities, both for our students and for companies working with us in the lab.”
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.
“Everybody’s excited about this tool,” Chang says. “We’re hoping to bring even more companies into the lab because this is such a novel way of working together with the solar industry. It helps advance our university research and better educate our students, and it helps the companies collaborating with us to create jobs.”
Among the companies working in the lab are: Pacific Northwest National Lab, Sol Array, Voxtel, Sharp Labs, Inspired Light, CSD Nano, and others.
The QE stands for quantum efficiency, a measurement technique that gives information about the power a 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 James Hudson, CEO of Tau Science. “This is pretty revolutionary.”
Due to the fact that current testing methods consume so much time, solar manufacturers generally test only a few cells per hundred thousand. But the FlashQE technology is so fast, it could enable companies to test every cell for defects and efficiency by incorporating the device into the manufacturing line.
Having a first customer for of the FlashQE is helping Tau Science get word out to industry and helping the company fine tune the product based on feedback from lab researchers and the companies using it.
“Having that first customer for us was a very big deal and plays a strategic role in gaining feedback that will help us across the Valley of Death as we further develop products,” says Hudson. “Researchers in the OPIC lab are using our tool in real-world testing applications with a wide range of solar cells, which is giving us important feedback on the usability and performance. This collaboration is a great way of combining the expertise of both industry and academia to benefit both.”
Tau Science recently received a technology grant from U.S. Dept. of Energy to help commercialize the product. “Being able to show that OSU had a purchase order for the first FlashQE system really helped us secure that funding,” Hudson says.
Because the OPIC lab works with a range of solar energy companies as well as venture investors, Tau Science’s relationship with the lab has the potential to help the company attract investors to fund future research and growth.
“Working with OPIC offers us a good opportunity to learn what investors are interested in,” Hudson says. “This collaboration has helped the university obtain good equipment, it brought Department of Energy funding to Oregon, and it is helping our company grow.”
Tau Science, which currently employs four people full time, officially released the FlashQE at a PV Specialist Conference in Seattle last June, shortly after the tool won an R&D Magazine 100 Award as one of the 100 most technologically significant products introduced.
“Oregon is becoming the second most important region in the country for solar energy research,” Hudson says. “But the state’s been somewhat underserved due to limited lab technologies and capabilities. This investment by Oregon BEST will help this. It’s part of strengthening the research and educating the next generation of solar energy employees.”
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