Bush sees the light

Bush in shades

It seems George Bush has been listening to the light gods he’s recently given White House funding to a project trying to harness energy from sunlight and interior light to wirelessly power everything from cellphones to signboards.
The company Konarka Technologies takes its name from an ancient temple in India dedicated to the sun god Surya, and was founded by Berke and Alan Heeger, who shared the 2000 Nobel Chemistry prize for showing that certain plastics can be made to conduct electricity.

With the Solar America Initiative, Bush has finally been forced to let solar energy compete with conventional electricity sources, and Konarka hopes to develop flexible plastic solar cell strips material that could be embedded into the casings of laptop computers and even woven into power-producing clothing to energize digital media players or other electronics. The technology offers a lightweight, flexible alternative to conventional rigid photovoltaic cells on glass panels.

Konarka has already attracted nearly $60 million in venture capital funding not bad for a six-year-old private company.

Konarka’s nearly $10 million in grant money to date from U.S. and European governments includes funding from the Pentagon to supply lightweight portable battery chargers and material for tents to draw power from sunlight.

Chief Executive Howard Berke said the new White House support is a milestone for Konarka.

The first commercial product using Konarka’s technology is expected to hit the market sometime next year, though no-one is saying what it might be.

Berke says that what they have is ” potentially a great breakthrough technology, but like all breakthroughs, they don’t happen instantaneously”.

Observers say Konarka has a good chance of becoming a leader in solar power, an industry enjoying a recent surge in initial public stock offerings by start-up companies as well as growing investments from traditional energy companies for example, one of Konarka’s financial backers is Chevron.

Konarka’s solar cell strips would be manufactured like rolls of photographic film, which “has the promise of becoming a low-cost manufacturing technique,” says Jeffrey Bencik, a Jefferies & Co. analyst who follows the solar industry.

“Some of their laboratory production has worked as advertised. But can they mass-produce it and get the same result? That’s the biggest question.”

Among developers of solar technology for small-scale uses, Konarka is “definitely doing the best job at developing what ultimately will have to be a mass-manufactured material,” said Dan Nocera, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor. However, Nocera said it remains to be seen whether Konarka’s so-called “Power Plastic” is sufficiently chemically stable to convert energy efficiently both when light is dim and when it’s bright.

The discovery about polymers long considered to be useful only as electrical insulators led to the development of new types of plastics to create flexible and lightweight alternatives to traditional solar cells on heavy glass panels.

Konarka developed low-cost plastics that could be used as the top and bottom surfaces of the photovoltaic cell. The 50-employee company says it has more than 280 patents and patent applications for materials, manufacturing and other processes and devices.

The company says its solar cells are efficient across a much broader spectrum of light than traditional cells, allowing them to draw energy from both the sun and indoor lighting.

The material is lightweight and flexible so that it can be colored, patterned and cut to fit almost any device embedded in cellphones, laptops and toys to provide power on the go. Clothing could be woven with the material to supply power for handheld electronics; and signboards, traffic lights and rooftops could be fitted with solar strips.

Off-grid computers

Berke foresees wide use of such technology in the developing world and areas that are off the grid.

To that end, Berke said Konarka has held confidential discussions with the manufacturer of an inexpensive portable computer developed for the non-profit One Laptop Per Child project, which seeks to provide computers to young students in the developing world. The project’s current design features a hand crank for charging batteries.

“In the developing world, great demand exists for off-the-grid support of electronic devices,” Berke said.

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