Natcore Hopes Developing NREL Tech Will Drive More NJ Jobs
Red Bank-based solar energy company Natcore Technology has been making a lot of news lately as it works to advance the technology behind solar energy. The firm recently licensed patents from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop and commercialize a line of black silicon products—including equipment, chemicals and solar cells. The license grants Natcore exclusivity in the field of “diffused emitters with liquid phase passivation.”
According to Chuck Provini, Natcore president and CEO, combining the NREL technology with the company’s own liquid phase deposition and passivity techniques will produce solar cells delivering more power per cell. The firm predicts a 5- to 12-percent power output increase in an industry trying to tweak cells to produce 1 percent more power. The first cells using the technology will appear this year, Provini said.
But what does this potential breakthrough mean to N.J.?, NJTechWeekly.com asked Provini. Will it create more jobs here? Natcore does much of its R & D in Rochester, N.Y., at the Eastman Business Park, recruiting local talent in that area as researchers. The company is also associated with Rice University, having conducted research at the Houston institution under the direction of Andrew Barron, Natcore’s founding scientist.
“We are looking to do more in N.J.,” Provini said. The company is involved in a joint venture with Italian solar firm MX Holding S.p.A., headquartered near Milan. “But the company has a solar panel manufacturing facility in Somerset. We were introduced to them by the lieutenant governor,” Kim Guadagno, who has been instrumental in helping Natcore make connections here in N.J., he said.
Natcore’s AR-Box delivers a self-contained antireflective coating process to solar fabrication facilities. “We would love to take our AR-Box, put the [NREL] black silicon technology on it and integrate that into our partner’s operation here in N.J., or into anyone else’s in N.J. for that matter. Our first choice is to try to do something here in N.J.”
Provini said his company is not political, but N.J. has been very welcoming. Some time ago the firm sent out 55 or so letters to members of Congress, senators, governors and other officials, saying the company had money and was ready to invest in their states. Natcore received two responses to all those letters, one of which was from the N.J. lieutenant governor. “She aggressively followed up,” and her help “got us looking into how we could do more investment here,” he said.
Speaking about the NREL technology, Provini said, “The black silicon does not necessarily increase the cell’s efficiency. What it does is increase its power output.” He pointed out measurements of efficiency are a snapshot, taken when the sun is perpendicular to a solar cell. “The black silicon puts pores into the solar cells, so it makes them very rough. It increases the surface area so the sun is in contact with a greater area of the solar cell over a greater period of time during the day.” The efficiency may be the same, but the overall power output will be greater because you’ve created a greater surface area and you engage the sun as it goes through its arc, he explained.
Provini said the NREL technology gets around the issue of power loss between the cell and the solar panel. He explained the issue came up during explorations with MX Holdings during tests in Italy. “One of our technologies is tandem solar cells, where we stack a number of cells on top of something. We thought doing that would double the efficiency of solar cells. However, the Italians were not excited about it.”
“The problem is, if you increase efficiency you still have a loss of power between the solar cell and the actual solar panel. Unless you solve that problem, increasing efficiency isn’t a big deal … The NREL patents let us increase power output, so you get much more power without having to deal with the cell/panel power loss issue, something the whole industry is contending with right now,” he added.