A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced it was supporting silicon wafer manufacturer 1366 Technologies with a $4 million grant from its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) program and a $3 million grant from its Solar Energy Technology Program. The funding was to go toward the development of a silicon wafer manufacturing process that 1366 claimed could end up reducing the production cost of photovoltaic (PV) cells by up to 65%.
The process, which 1366 calls “Direct Wafer”, has apparently been refined to a level such that the DOE is prepared to lend its support in getting manufacturing operations up and running sooner than later. A recent announcement by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu indicates the DOE has offered up a conditional commitment for a $150 million loan guarantee to 1366 Technologies for the building of at least one manufacturing plant that will start producing silicon wafers for multi-crystalline solar panels.
The first phase of the project will involve a plant in Lexington, Massachusetts which is expected to generate 70 permanent jobs and 50 construction jobs. 1366 is also evaluating site locations for another phase, which they anticipate will create hundreds of additional jobs.
The “Direct Wafer” process, which Secretary Chu hails as a “game changer,” cuts out three expensive, energy intensive and wasteful processes that are involved in conventional silicone wafer production methods. This new process involves just one step that accomplishes in a few hours what normally takes three days, thereby reducing energy consumption by up to 90%. It is said that this new approach could reduce the cost of producing silicon wafers by up to 50%.
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