Ones To Watch: MIT Clean Energy Winners

Think of it as a peephole into the future of clean energy technology.

Five teams – budding companies – took home a total of $320,000 earlier this week as MIT plucked a handful of standouts from among more than 50 teams competing in the university’s annual Clean Energy Prize competition.

MIT Clean Energy Competition

image via MIT

The big winner was Picasolar, out of the University of Arkansas, which took the NSTAR MIT Clean Energy Prize (worth $150,000) and the DOE EERE Clean Energy Prize ($100,000 for that).

The company is working to commercialize a selective emitter application developed in Fayetteville with a startup called Silicon Solar Solutions.

A little background: The goal with selective emitters is to boost the efficiency of solar cells by doping them in a way the improves the electrical connection, mitigating a “dead layer” at the surface of the cell. (There’s a pretty good description of this challenge on pages 16-19 of this University of Delaware solar cells class PDF.)

The industry has been grasping about for cost-effective selective emitter applications. According to a University of Arkansas release earlier this year, Picasolar says that by using atomic hydrogen to deactivate impurities in the emitter, it can turn a complicated two-or-more step process into a single step that “increases solar power conversion efficiency and reduces the amount of silver needed to produce high-efficiency solar cells, thereby lowering material costs.”

On the MIT competition website, Picasolar put those gains into dollars and cents terms:

The Hydrogen Selective Emitter (HSE), offers solar cell manufacturers the advantage that is necessary to become profitable in the solar industry. With our HSE technology, manufacturers could increase profits from negative $1 up to $34 per solar panel based on efficiency gains and silver cost savings. For our average 4 million panel customer, that is an increase of $140 million in revenue.

Among the four other winners in the competition (you can see them all here), Sistine Solar in the renewable energy category was especially fascinating. This company wants to transform the look of photovoltaic installations on buildings — doing for panels what “Apple did with cell phones” — in order to inspire greater adoption.

image via MIT

image via MIT

Will anything come of these collegiate efforts? MIT noted that on awards night, the competition’s co-founder, Bill Aulet, “cited past MIT participants — such as FastCap Systems, Oscomp Systems, Levant Power and FinSix — that got their training and start in the CEP and have since grown into successful companies.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.