Tomita-UT project could have dramatic impact on solar industryWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
What began as an excited discussion between two career scientists at Northrop Grumman Aerospace in El Segundo, Calif. in 2004 about the results of an experiment may change the solar industry as the world knows it today, said Charles Tomita, chief executive officer of Solar Spectrum.
Richard Stansley, chairman of UT’s Innovative Enterprises (UT-IE), agrees with Tomita’s analysis.
“Charlie is right when he says it could change photovoltaics as we know them,” Stansley said. “He very much is right on the mark.”
Stansley arranged and facilitated interviews between Tomita and scientists at UT’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization (UT-PVIC) as well as UT business development professionals. After a series of meetings, Tomita and Stansley signed a contract between Solar Spectrum, UT and UT-PVIC which granted UT the patent to Tomita’s potentially revolutionary technology and Solar Spectrum the exclusive production rights.
“Charlie is here because of what the university had to offer,” Stansley said. “I’m a conduit to get to the things people need, and we have a lot of great people here that have a vast array of knowledge.”
Stretching the limits
Stansley said that after he studied Tomita’s concept, he decided to bring the right research and development faculty together to support the creation of Tomita’s business enterprise.
“The reason it is so easy is because a guy like Charlie … he’s done a lot of big things in life. He was one of the lead designers of the stealth bomber. And that’s only one thing he has done. He has a whole history of contribution on things like energy, satellites and radars. This is a guy who’s done a lot.
“He’s a down-to-earth kind of guy. What he said to me was, ‘I want to do one last big thing in life.’ And this is the concept, and he came out here because we have expertise in thin-film photovoltaic.
“These products are stretching the limit of what we know about material science. These are ultra-thins. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] published an article about four, five months ago. They said, ‘Here’s what we’ve developed. It will be commercially available in 10 to 15 years.’
“Well, we have prototypes. We’re pretty quiet about the work we do, but we had prototypes before they had their prototype. And our prototype, we think, will be commercially available within 18 months.”
Brandon Cohen of INCENU said he believes production on Solar Spectrum’s product could begin before the end of the year if it weren’t for the politics surrounding solar energy.
“The design work for the mass production could literally take less than a month if we had full funding,” Cohen said. “The real challenge is a political issue. There are such competing viewpoints on solar. Some people think solar is the greatest thing in the world. Others think solar is the biggest political giveback in the world.
“Getting past that is a challenge, so we’re in the process of raising the funding to do all this work. We believe we’re going to be successful in raising money to go to large-scale manufacturing — maybe not large-scale in that it’s not heavy industrial, but what I would call ‘repeatable manufacturing,’ where you’re doing multiple windows at a time.
“It’s raising the money to get it in place for the engineering; that’s going to take a little more time.
“People have negative viewpoints about solar for reasons that are not related to the business model. The business model is not a bad business model. I think the challenge is overcoming the ‘politicalness’ of it,” Cohen said.
Tomita, working with a group of UT-PVIC scientists, developed a novel approach to optimize the various layers used to build a solar cell, according to Stansley. The product looks like tinted glass, and it produces power, Stansley said.
“When working in this area, everybody wants to talk about installed cost per watt,” Stansley said, “and the installed cost per watt on a product like this is just incremental to the current cost of the window.
“This is not distributed power [for the grid]. This is power that will be used as it is produced right in the facility that it’s produced in. There’s a great opportunity with it.”
Randy J. Ellingson, a UT-PVIC and School for Solar and Advanced Renewable Energy (SSARE) faculty member and associate professor of physics, is UT-PVIC’s principal investigator on Tomita’s project. He has worked to put Tomita in contact with the resources he needs — the people, partners, and equipment to make the connections and build the partnerships with interested parties.
One of those partners is Michael J. Heben, a scientist and professor of physics at UT who conducts his research as an endowed chair at UT-PVIC.
Heben said the strength of Tomita’s process lies in “costs you’re going to incur no matter what. You want to have a window. If you have a building, then you’ve got a structure to hold a window. Charlie’s approach has that window generate some electrical energy with very small additional costs.
“A lot of the components you would put into a window anyway — the two sheets of glass, the frame and the support structure to hold that frame — are sunk costs. You do that regardless of whether or not you’re going to have any kind of electricity generation.”
An insulated glass unit has two panes of glass, and with Tomita’s process “one of the panes of glass has this thin coating on the interior of the panes of glass,” Heben said. “The coating will be hermetically sealed within the window. That’s important for a material like cadmium telluride because you want to keep that protected and out of the environment.”
Willard & Kelsey
Stansley said the Solar Spectrum project is a demonstration of the economic development infrastructure coming to bear to take a concept, something UTIE calls “Lab to Launch,” right through to acceleration.
“And we’re continuing to work on that enterprise,” Stansley said. “We’re really excited about it.
“Willard & Kelsey happens to have the manufacturing technology that we’re using to build the prototypes out. I took Charlie over to Willard & Kelsey, made all the introductions, and helped to put protocols in place for doing prototype runs.
“And part of the deal — and I know there’s not a lot of good press in respect to Willard & Kelsey — but believe me, they have gone a long, long way to perfecting this technology, and they deserve credit as well.”
Heben agrees that Willard & Kelsey has been instrumental in Solar Spectrum’s progress.
“Willard & Kelsey is heavily facilitating this technology development by providing depositions, and they’re putting the semiconductor material down onto the glass that eventually will be included into the photovoltaic window,” Heben said.
“There are other window manufacturers who are interested in this. We don’t know whether to mention that or to keep it secret because it seems to hamper Charlie’s business case for others to know that he has been associated with Willard & Kelsey.
“In my case, I’m working with a lot of different companies and I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this one interaction, although I do want Willard & Kelsey to be successful and work hard for them to be successful, but I like to say that I do that for the all the companies that we’re working with.”
Tomita said he is “extremely
“We think we’re going to have a paradigm shift in solar energy production,” Tomita said. “Hopefully we can take this to fruition, and help the university out because the university is supporting me big-time.
“They’re in with us because they have a little skin in the game. They will ultimately hold the patent for us, and we will be the manufacturer as well as the distributor, but they will take their cut.
“And if this is successful, it will change the solar industry across the world.
“How did I come up with this? My corporate home base is California. Drive in the afternoon and look at all the buildings. All of the shades, the Venetian blinds, are drawn on the windows because there is too much sunlight coming in, heating up the building. Interesting … Why not capture all of that energy heating the building up?”