IN DEPTH: Is 1366 a game-changer?

“The science is understood. The material is abundant. The products work. All that is left is to build the largest manufacturing industry in the history of mankind. This is what we intend to do.”

As this online company description shows, Massachusetts PV firm 1366 Technologies genuinely believes it can change the world — that its proprietary wafer technology will transform the industry and enable solar power to become cost-competitive with coal.

“[We can] supply the world with high-quality wafers produced at a fraction of today’s cost,” chief executive Frank van Mierlo tells Recharge. “We think that we can cut the cost of wafers by a factor of three.”

The idea behind 1366 is simple. In the established crystalline-silicon production process, high-purity molten silicon is poured into large crucibles to create ingots that are then sliced into ultra-thin square wafers — a method that can leave up to half the original silicon as waste and requires “unnecessary consumables” such as wire saws and slurry.

In 1366’s production method, however, the molten silicon is poured into small moulds, directly creating individual 156sq mm wafers. The process — developed by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Ely Sachs — includes a proprietary technique to extract the fragile 0.2mm-thick wafer from the mould without breaking it.

Development of the technology has been swift. Three years ago, 1366 was producing wafers with 10% conversion efficiencies. Today that figure stands at 17%, comfortably within industry standards. Earlier this year, the company opened its first commercial-scale factory — a 25MW plant in Bedford, Massachusetts.

It will take “another year or two” to perfect and scale up that facility, but by the end of 2013, the company expects to start seeing its wafers in market-bound PV modules. And thanks to pre-payments from unidentified customers, the company will be cash-flow positive this year, van Mierlo says.

The six-year-old company’s business plan appears on schedule. 1366 has attracted funding from a variety of investors, including US venture capital firm North Bridge Partners and South Korea’s Hanwha Chemical. Another boon for 1366 came in May, when the company announced a “strategic partnership” with leading Japanese silicon producer Tokuyama to “accelerate the adoption” of its technology into the PV supply chain.

Even the dramatic drop in polysilicon prices over recent years has not thrown 1366 off course. “Even at $15 per kg, you’re still paying more than you would for the finest beef you can find in the supermarket,” points out van Mierlo. “[Polysilicon] is still very expensive.”

One ace 1366 holds up its sleeve is a $150m loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy’s controversial 1705 programme. Once 1366 passes certain milestones, the loan guarantee will cover half the cost of a large US wafer factory with up to 1GW of capacity. The company believes it will be in a position — financially and technologically — to break ground on that factory next year and reach full production by 2015. Van Mierlo adds that 1366 would also be open to building wafer factories in collaboration with others.

For many investors and employees, the dedication of 1366’s co-founder, Sachs, is of vital importance. Sachs — a pioneering PV innovator for decades, whose research led to the invention of three-dimensional printing — gave up his professorship at the world-renowned MIT to act as 1366’s chief technology officer.

“To give up tenure at a place like MIT almost never happens,” says van Mierlo, an MIT alumnus himself. “It’s a real endorsement of the viability and importance of this technology, coming from the person who understands it best.”

The crushing PV price drop of the past few years has made things more difficult “for everyone, including us”, van Mierlo acknowledges.

“But one day the industry will look back and see how important this [phase] was for PV,” he says. “And by the time our large factory is up and running, I think the industry will, to a large extent, have been rationalised, and profitability will have returned.

“You might even say that we’ve been lucky in our timing.”