Konarka: Giant Leap With Nano-based Solar Power  
by: Francis C. Assisi

Boston, 11 July -- The magnificent temple to the sun god Surya, in Konarak, Orissa, may be far from the minds of investors in Europe and America who are keen on investing in a technology company based in Lowell, Massachusetts.

But that’s precisely what the founder of Konarka Technologies, Dr. Sukant Tripathy, had in mind when he named his technological vision for that pinnacle of Hindu architecture. After all, Vedic hymns refer to the sun as the fount of inexhaustible power and radiance, and describe the celestial body as the source and sustainer of all life on earth.

Today the technology that IITian Tripathy and three of his Indian American colleagues – Jayant Kumar, Kethinni Chittibabu and Srinivasan Balasubramanian -- have spawned, has taken some critical first steps toward changing how we think about harvesting energy from the sun.

That’s why on the test benches of Konarka Technologies a new kind of solar cell is being put through its paces. Strips of flexible plastic all but indistinguishable from photographic film bask under high-intensity lights. These strips, about 10 centimeters long and five centimeters wide, are converting the light into electricity. Wire a few of them together, and they generate enough power to run a small fan.

Konarka plans to have its solar-cell strips made of "semiconducting particles of titanium dioxide coated with light-absorbing dyes" on the market next year for both consumer products and the defense industry.

As the world’s energy consumption grows, Konarka envisions building renewable, environment-friendly energy solutions that produce power from the sun for a World Without Wire. Today, technology analysts predict that all this fast-growing effort could quickly reach critical mass. And energy industry analysts have described Konarka-type technologies as part of a coming “tectonic shift’’ from fossil fuels to solar power.

The Boston Globe recently described Konarka as “part of a class of high-tech, medical devices, and biotech companies in Massachusetts that are exploring new directions and cultivating new ideas that will create industry clusters…These companies are interested in making giant leaps, rather than incrementally improving existing technologies.”

Already, Konarka has grabbed the attention of the U.S. Army.

Konarka Technologies is making waves this month for two obvious reasons: its technology, and its business strategy.

Investors in Konarka’s technology include Electricité de France and ChevronTexaco, respectively the first and fifth largest energy companies in the world. Last week a significant investment from the European venture capital community was announced by the company as part of its recent $18 million Series C round of financing. Since 2001, the company has raised $32 million from venture capital firms New Enterprise Associates and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, among others.

The quality of the syndicate supporting Konarka is a testament to the quality of the team and the fundamental breakthrough nature of the company´s core technology," said Raj Atluru, managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. "The company has brought together the best partners worldwide to turn its vision into a reality. Konarka has the potential to be among the most important companies that DFJ has ever invested in."

THE KONARKA TECHNOLOGY

Technology wise, Konarka builds revolutionary, light-sensitive products using next generation nanomaterials that are coated on rolls of plastic. Konarka´s nanomaterials absorb sunlight and indoor light and convert them into electrical energy. These products can be easily integrated as the power generation component for a variety of applications and can be produced and used virtually anywhere.

Konarka’s novel idea of using plastics as the basis for solar panels was spun from the research of Tripathy, an accomplished scientist, engineer and professor, who dreamed of bringing electricity to impoverished regions of India, such as his native Dihar in Orissa. Sadly, Tripathy never had the chance to achieve his dream; he drowned while on a break from the American Chemical Society International Meeting he was attending in Hawaii in December 2000.

Tripathy, 48, was founder and director of the Center for Advanced Materials and helped establish the University´s new Institute for NanoScience Engineering and Technology. He joined UMass in 1985 after obtaining his BS ‘72 and MS’ 74 from IIT Kharagpur and Ph.D.’81 from Case Western Reserve University.

The push to start a company “could very well have died with him, but it didn’t,” said Russell Gaudiana, Konarka’s vice president of research and development — and a friend of Tripathy for 15 years. “The technology was so compelling.”

The heart of Konarka’s technology is a new way to make “photovoltaic cells,” also known as PVCs. These cells are created using nanoscale titanium dioxide particles; the chemical is coated with a special light-sensitive dye; and when light hits the dye, they generate electricity.

The problem? Until now, PVCs have been made by heating the titanium crystals to 450 degrees Celsius and then coating them with a light-sensitive dye – a process known as “sintering.” That process was too expensive to make them a practical source of power. Tripathy and his researchers perfected a “cold-sintering” method that achieves the same result at temperatures of 150 degrees or lower.

Those cooler temperatures are critical to new uses for PVCs. When forged at higher temperatures, PVC material can only be coated onto glass, which makes for expensive, delicate product applications. Cold-sintering allows the PVC material to be coated onto plastics; in essence, a product’s outer shell becomes its power source.

And at those cooler temperatures, they can churn out large numbers of photovoltaic cells quickly and cheaply. The Konarka cell does not generate any more electricity than other power cells, or do so more efficiently. Its appeal is that the cell can be manufactured far more cheaply, so Konarka can churn out a large supply and, the company hopes, put them into all sorts of devices.

Why is the army interested in all this?

The Army is hungry for lightweight, renewable sources of power. The reason is that the growing array of sophisticated electronics carried into the field by today´s soldiers requires an enormous amount of battery power. Computers, displays, night-vision goggles, communication devices, and other equipment all require reliable and stable sources of power. The new photovoltaic cells can provide electricity to run electronic equipment directly or to recharge batteries.

"You look at a soldier today. A regular field soldier carries 1.5 pounds of batteries now. A special operations soldier has a longer time out, has to carry 140 pounds of equipment besides his or her body mass, 60 to 70 pounds of which are batteries," Daniel McGahn, Konarka´s executive vice president and chief marketing officer said. "So we hope to come down on that weight."

That’s why Konarka recently entered into a lucrative partnership with the U.S. Army’s Soldier Systems Center to begin development of flexible, lightweight patches – and perhaps eventually clothing – that act as power generators. Among the U.S. Army team working on the project is UMass Lowell alumna Dr. Lynne Samuelson, whose graduate work was done with Dr. Tripathy.

Samuelson says that Tripathy’s cold-sintering technique has been vital to the Army’s efforts at self-powering devices and the much-hyped initiative to create the “Soldier of the Future.” The Army-Konarka contract supports research on “solar fiber,” which will help shift Konarka’s PVC technology from plastics into textiles.

And how about an army uniform that generates its own electricity? The concept is not as futuristic as it may seem. In fact, prototypes may be ready for field-testing in the next year or so, according to Gaudiana.

Beyond military uses, the technology might have commercial uses powering cell phones, MP3 players and other electronic devices. Eventually, it might be used on rooftops to power companies and homes. That might be closer to founder Sukant Tripathy´s vision: to power areas in third-world countries too far from existing power grids.

But for now the company will start by making products that already use traditional photovoltaic cells: weather observation posts, chemical sensors, emergency lighting and similar devices.

Dr. Jayant Kumar, an adviser to Konarka who developed the technology with Tripathy, said his friend would be pleased to see the company’s momentum today.

“It was both Sukant’s and my hope that it would provide power to people in rural areas,” Kumar said. “For people who have no power, even a couple of light bulbs for a few hours in the evening make a tremendous difference in the quality of life. Having grown up in India, we certainly realized this.”

Kumar is one of several people close to Tripathy who still work with Konarka. Drs. Kethinni Chittibabu and Srinivasan Balasubramanian work at Konarka as principal scientists. All three men worked with Tripathy in the early 1990s to develop the technology Konarka uses today. At the time, Tripathy was head of UMass Lowell’s Center for Advanced Materials. Kumar is a Professor of Physics and the current Director for the Center for Advanced Materials at UMass. Kumar and Hari Singh Nalwa are coauthors with Tripathy of ‘Handbook of Polyelectrolytes and Their Applications.’

Dr. Chittibabu, who received M.S. in Chemistry from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras, India; M.S. in Polymer Science and Technology from IIT, Delhi; and a Ph.D. in Polymer Science/Plastics Engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell has performed extensive research on the design, synthesis, processing and characterization of conjugated polymers. While studying at UMass Lowell, he received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award in Polymer Science for his academic and research performance.

Dr. Balasubramanian earned his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Madras in Madras, India; M.S. in Chemistry from Case Western Reserve University; and a Ph.D. in Polymer Science/Plastics Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He designs and develops dye-sensitized, nanocrystalline, semiconductor-based photovoltaic cells for portable power applications. He also has extensive experience synthesizing and processing polymeric materials for optoelectronic and related applications.

Using plastics as the basis for solar panels will result in a faster manufacturing process than silicon fabrication plants, said Gaudiana. He likened the process to producing photographic film, and said the solar panels can be printed in any color. "Our solar panels can be woven into any fabric, including tents, clothing or roofing material," he said.

The reason these new solar films or panels are becoming available is due to advancements in nanomaterials. Nanotechnology has allowed for plastics and nanoparticles to be mixed together in a solution and printed onto a plastic surface. The solution forms into a structure, which then acts like a solar panel.

"Low-temperature sintering allows us to make solar cells on lightweight, flexible plastics," Gaudiana explains. And the devices can be manufactured through simple high-speed coating procedures, he adds. In contrast to other types of photovoltaic cells in which the light-harvesting and electricity-generating layers are deposited on the rigid surfaces of glass or silicon, Konarka´s cells can assume a large number of shapes and sizes and be fabricated in several forms. Gaudiana notes that the company recently filed a patent describing procedures for making photovoltaic fibers that can be woven into fabrics. With those capabilities in hand, buildings, tents, vehicles, and even uniforms can be used as surfaces on which to generate electricity.

Konarka has announced that it will enter the market with a photovoltaic cell in late 2004 that will generate solar power at about $2 per watt. It hopes to start selling its solar films next year for use in consumer electronics and defense applications.

Making these cells efficient enough to compete with coal, wind, and nuclear power remains an ambitious goal, but it’s one that experts say is attainable. Though mainstream applications are early-stage, “the way has been opened,” says Serdar Sariciftci, a materials physicist at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, and a Konarka advisor. “The avalanche has started.”

UMass Lowell contributions to the company include intellectual property, labs and equipment, scientists, leadership coaching, and seed funding. The University holds a stake in the company and will receive a share of the company profits once the products enter the market. Meanwhile, UMass students have received outstanding educational opportunities from the partnership by participating in the development of the company.

francisassisi@hotmail.com


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