In Lexington, Solar Is Coming

By Andrea Smardon

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Feb. 10, 2011

A tour of 1366 Technologies | Jess Bidgood/WGBH


BOSTON — One of the state’s largest alternative energy companies, Evergreen Solar, is in the process of closing its manufacturing plant in Devens. But the landscape for solar manufacturing in Massachusetts isn’t all bleak. A solar startup in Lexington, 1366 Technologies, is looking to open a new plant in Massachusetts  — and they’re hiring.
 
Frank van Mierlo, the CEO of 1366 Technologies, is a tall, energetic man from the Netherlands.  On a brisk walk to the machine shop, he passes a poster with a drawing of a horse and rider, that reads “Solar is coming,” a nod to Paul Revere’s historic ride through Lexington.  Like Revere, Van Mierlo is on a mission , and he’s in a hurry. 

Silicon is seen in the various stages of refinement it goes through before it becomes a solar wafer, a crucial building block of solar cells. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

 “We make manufacturing equipment, so it’s very important to be hands-on, and that means that you should quickly do stuff, quickly try something, quickly draft something, and quickly make it, and so this fast prototyping ability is an important part of our company,” Van Mierlo says.
 
According to Van Mierlo, solar has made tremendous progress in the last 30 years.  And by bringing down the cost of photovoltaic cells, the part of a solar panel that converts sunlight into electricity, 1366 is taking the industry a step closer to competing with fossil fuels.
 
“We’re in the neighborhood. If we keep on going, in the next decade or so, we can actually be competitive with coal.  It’s doable, and we have some of the technologies to do that in house,” Van Mierlo said.
 
In the lab, engineers are focused on turning silicon  — an abundant material found in rocks — into thin wafers.  These wafers are the building blocks for solar cells, and the most expensive part of the supply chain.  1366 has invented a machine that could turn a multi-step process into a single step, producing silicon wafers at a fraction of today’s price.  Van Mierlo says this kind of innovation is made possible by a special blend of talent and venture capital that comes together in Massachusetts.

Engineer Tom Dusseault analyzes solar wafers that have undergone a texture treatment process. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

“That combination of talent, good living conditions, excellent universities — that makes it possible to assemble a group like this,” Van Mierlo said. “And then of course the availability of capital to actually try this — and this is where the US venture community comes in. That does not really exist elsewhere. There is a reason we are more innovative than anybody else.”

Emanuel Sachs is the brains behind the company.  Once a consultant for Evergreen Solar, he’s now a mechanical engineering professor at MIT and the Chief Technology Officer of 1366.  He says the start-up is almost ready to begin manufacturing; they plan to build a pilot factory, and they want to keep it near their Research and Development headquarters. 

 “It’s incredibly beneficial to have your core R&D team very close, ideally co-located with a factory. So they can put their ideas into practice, and see the results themselves.  There’s no doubt that that’s our preferred way to go,” Sachs said.
 
Richard Sullivan, the new State Secretary for Energy and Environmental Affairs, says being a leader in green energy is a priority for the state, and they will do everything possible to make companies like 1366 want to stay. 

Emmanuel Sachs, the CTO of 1366, stands in the lab. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

“What the Commonwealth can do as a whole is create that supportive environment that makes not only the research & development which I think we’re extremely successful at, but also showing that there’s lot of places in Mass. where the manufacturing can stay here and can be competitive,” Sullivan said.

To help 1366 secure a federal grant, the state has provided $300,000 in matching funds. In total, 1366 has received $7 million in public money, with the bulk of the start-up’s funding – about $45 million -- coming from private venture capital. 

 Frank van Mierlo is optimistic that new energy technologies can be successful here — they just need a level playing field.
 
“There is 10,000 times more solar energy than we need to power our entire civilization. You can do this with solar, but there has to be ground swell support for that,” Mierlo said.
 
1366 already has early customers waiting for their wafers in South Korea and Germany.  The company is focused now on finding a location for its pilot plant and hiring people to help lead that effort. Van Mierlo says 1366 hopes to break ground before the end of the year. 

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