Solarmer Energy is a developer of organic photovoltaic cells (OPVs) which generate low-cost and clean electricity. Solarmer was founded in 2006 with the goal of commercializing OPVs. The company licensed initial technologies from University of California, Los Angeles and set up a world class R&D facility in El Monte, CA. The company has 20 employees, including 15 R&D staff with backgrounds in materials science, chemistry, physics, electrical, and chemical engineering. Solarmer has developed a strong IP portfolio in materials, devices and processes and is a world leader in OPV, having reported world-record efficiency four times in the last two years. The company has built a pilot line to develop low-cost, high speed manufacturing process. Solarmer is looking to partner with companies who have expertise in manufacturing and system integration to bring its OPV technology to the market. The company anticipates small lot production to being in mid-2012 and product launch later that year.
Solarmer intends to produce OPV modules jointly with a manufacturing partner. The OPV modules will be sold to system integrators who will integrate them into various products. OPVs can be produced in customizable shapes and sizes without making changes to the manufacturing process, thereby catering to many product categories at the same time. Solarmer intends to target portable power as first application for its OPVs. Therefore, the first customers of Solarmer’s OPVs will be consumer electronics manufacturers and OEMs, including companies who make portable electronics products, as well as accessories like bags and cases where OPVs can be integrated to provide solar power. In the longer term, OPVs will be suitable for building integrated applications. Therefore, Solarmer’s customers will be architectural firms and building materials manufactures that will incorporate OPVs into windows, shingles, tiles and other building components to produce low-cost electricity.
The demand for portable power is skyrocketing with the proliferation of devices like smart phones and tablets. These devices are demanding more power and longer runtime due more features and more frequent use and the battery technology cannot keep up. Progress for battery capacity is about 10% per year whereas computing power doubles every 18 months. As a result, a Power Gap exists between energy demand and the energy available from batteries. OPVs are an excellent source of portable power as they are flexible, light-weight, colorful, transparent, perform well under indoor lighting, and are much lower in cost compared to traditional PVs.
In the long term, OPVs are a great candidate for off-grid and BIPV applications to provide clean and affordable energy to people who do not have access to grid electricity, especially in developing countries like India, China and Brazil. Low-cost and easy integration and installation make OPVs suitable for off-grid and BIPV applications.
Solarmer is in discussions with several large companies with roll-to-roll manufacturing capability, to produce OPV modules. Once the production begins in mid-2012, Solarmer and its manufacturing partner will provide OPV modules to product developers and system integrators. For portable power applications, Solarmer is in discussion with electronics manufactures like LG and Motorola, and other OEMs in Asia for portable charger accessories like cases, bags, etc. Solarmer has tied up with American Reliance to develop off-grid power solutions based on OPV technology. Solarmer is also in discussion with glass manufacturer Joel Berman Glass Studios and architectural firm Kieran Timberlake to develop OPVs based BIPV applications. Several other partnerships are being investigated with potential customers to integrate OPV technology into various products.
Portable power applications are going to be the primary market for OPVs for the next 3 to 5 years. Portable electronics technology and power consumption continues to advance much faster than battery technology and the gap continues to widen. On an average, portable power applications require around 0.5-5 Watts of power and 3-5 years lifetime which is ideal for OPVs. As portable electronics get lighter, OPVs extreme light weight (only 50 mg per sq cm) make them the only viable substitute or supplement to existing battery technology.
In the long term, we will target building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) market. The most valuable long term commercial application for Solarmer’s OPVs in BIPV is Power Windows - windows that incorporate our proprietary transparent solar panels to provide protection from the light while generating electricity. Other potential applications in BIPV include roofing, facades, curtains, and walls.
In 2011, the total sales of smart phones are expected to be 350 million units. For an OPV cell with 5% efficiency, 250 mW output and $4.00 per unit price for each phone, the total market size is $1.4 billion for smart phones alone. The OPV unit price of $3.00 per phone is comparable to other components such as camera, GPS chip, etc. which cost $4-$10 per smart phone. Assuming Solarmer will integrate its OPVs on 5% of all smart phones, the total available market is $70 million per year for just one product category.
OPVs will directly compete with battery; however the growth in battery technology cannot keep pace with the growth in functionality of portable electronic devices. In addition, there are issues with the safety and disposal of batteries due to the toxic chemicals in them. As a result, OPVs are the best candidate to replace batteries for portable power. Micro fuel cells (MFCs) are also a competitor to OPVs in portable power market. However, MFCs face several market restraints such as bulky designs, unknown cost of fuel cell and cartridge, slower response times, low efficiencies and low power density, and restrictions with transportation of fuels.
Within the off-grid and BIPV market, OPVs will face competition from other thin-film PVs like amorphous silicon, CIGS and CdTe. However, OPVs are much lower in cost, have better performance in low light, are colorful, and have greater flexibility and light-weight. Besides, OPVs have no issues with toxicity like CIGS and CdTe solar cells do.
Solarmer’s mission is to commercialize a low-cost, flexible, and renewable source of clean energy derived from OPV cells. Solarmer has established itself as a world leader by developing knowhow and IP in materials, devices and processes for OPV technology. In moving forward Solarmer is looking to partner with companies who have expertise in roll to roll manufacturing, to jointly produce OPV modules on large-scale. The OPV technology will be shared with partners via joint venture or licensing. Solarmer and its manufacturing partner will work with potential customers that include product developers and system integrators, who will integrate OPVs in various products. Solarmer expects to generate revenues from technology licensing, materials sales, and sales of OPV modules.
OPVs uniqueness lies in their ultra low-cost and easy manufacturing. The current cost of solar energy is higher than conventional fuels due to the high cost of raw materials and complicated manufacturing process. On the other hand, Solarmer’s OPV modules have the potential to drive the cost of solar energy down to $0.5/Watt, which is 3-5 times cheaper than current solar cells. In addition, the capital required to set up manufacturing is 20 times lower than a comparable capacity line for other PVs. In the long term, no other solar technology can compete with OPVs in terms of cost. In addition, OPVs are flexible, light-weight, perform better under low lights, are colorful and could be transparent. This enables newer applications which were not possible for other PVs in the past. Finally, OPVs are easy to recycle and dispose, and have no issues with toxicity, unlike other solar cells.
OPVs are the newest generation of solar cells that use organics, or polymers, to generate electricity. OPV were first reported in 1980s but their efficiencies remained low up until just a few years ago. Also, there have been doubts about their operational stability and lifetime. Solarmer’s goal is to commercialize OPV technology for clean and low-cost power by addressing these issues. Solarmer has invented several new polymer molecules to achieve high efficiency of more than 8%. This involved molecular design, chemical structure modification and band gap engineering. In addition, Solarmer has developed encapsulation scheme using ultra-barrier improves the lifetime to around 3 years. Solarmer is also focusing on module development, which involves device architecture engineering, interfacial layer selection and coating process optimization. With these approaches, Solarmer aims to deliver 5% module efficiency and 5 years lifetime for OPV modules by 2013, at a cost of less than $1/Watt.
A typical OPV cell consists of a polymer layer, also called as the active layer, which contains the semiconductor materials that converts sunlight into electricity. This active layer is sandwiched between two contacts or electrodes that collect the charge. To facilitate the extraction of charge or electricity, additional buffer layers are used between the active layer and the electrodes, as a result, a typical OPV cell contains 4-5 layers stacked on a flexible substrate. The polymer active layer consists of a bulk-heterojunction of donor and acceptor molecules, which an interpenetrating network. The front electrode is typically transparent, such as indium tin oxide, which allows the light to pass through. The back contact is a metal such as aluminum or silver. The active layer converts light into electrons and holes which are carried to the electrodes and extracted to generate electricity.
Solarmer has world class R&D facilities in Los Angeles and Beijing, and has close partnerships with UCLA, University of Chicago, and Chinese Academy of Sciences. Solarmer is a clear leader in OPV materials and device development, and has demonstrated world-record efficiency four times in last two years, including the current highest efficiency of 8.4%. In addition, the company has built a pilot line capable of manufacturing samples of OPV panels through a high-speed printing process. The line has a maximum coating speed of 20 feet/min and has a nameplate capacity to produce 2-3 MW of OPV modules per year. Production grade prototypes are expected to be delivered by the end of 2011, with 3% efficiency and 3 years lifetime. Meanwhile, Solarmer is in discussion to jointly manufacture OPV modules with a company that has the roll to roll manufacturing technology. The first product will be launched by end of 2012.
1. Performance: The state-of-the-art efficiencies of OPV cells are around 9%. However, for wide spread commercial applications cell efficiencies of 15% must be reached.
2. Stability: OPVs have relatively shorter lifetimes. For viable commercial products lifetimes of 5-10 years should be reached.
3. Scalability: even though the cell efficiencies are high, the module efficiencies are low, currently 2-3%. The gap between lab cell efficiency and module efficiency must be lowered to enable higher performance from production grade OPVs.
4. Cost: The biggest challenge is to deliver OPV cells at cost which is lower other PV technologies. Manufacturing processes must be developed to enable production at around $30-50/m2 at full scale.
Solarmer’s IP portfolio currently includes a broad and diverse range of innovations developed in-house and with research partners. This portfolio consists of more than 40 US patent applications and foreign equivalents, numerous trade secrets and an active program to develop and harvest new IP from its ongoing R&D efforts.
Solarmer is looking to raise $30 million in pre-production funding which will provide working capital for R&D operations, product development and scale-up of manufacturing. This funding should take Solarmer through initial product launch, projected for the end of 2012.