Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Tech Jobs or Spending Cuts:  A Trump White House Dilemma

Direct wafer solar cells. (Photo Credit: @1366Tech via Twitter) Click to Enlarge.
A Massachusetts startup named 1366 Technologies has beaten one technological barrier after another in its nine-year quest for a manufacturing breakthrough for U.S.-made silicon wafers, the platform for solar power cells.

But now it has a hurdle its engineers and scientists can't answer in the laboratory.

That is to persuade the Trump administration's Department of Energy to come through with a $150 million loan guarantee promised by the Obama administration that is the key to construction of the company's first full-scale manufacturing plant in rural upstate New York.

The company's future is a test case in how the new administration will draw the line between budget cutting and seeding high-tech manufacturing jobs.

"Whether the loan guarantee is there or not is a decision [DOE Secretary] Rick Perry has to make," said Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies of Bedford, Mass.

Van Mierlo and teammates set out in 2008 to invent a machine that could lift and transfer a perfect, hair-thin wafer from a molten pool of silicon, cutting the cost of wafers in half and transforming the process for making photovoltaic solar power cells.  Everywhere else around the world, the solar cell wafers are sawed from ingots of purified silicon, turning half the wafer into useless saw residue.  The company's process for making wafers without sawing ingots is still closely guarded.

"We produce the wafers for one-third the energy and half the cost.  We should by all accounts take a large amount of market share," he told E&E News.

Van Mierlo said the technology is established.  It has produced hundreds of thousands of wafers with factory-scale equipment, and the process will go somewhere else if not in New York.  The company has contracted with a subsidiary of Wacker Chemie AG, a German-based multinational, to deliver purified silicon from Wacker's new Charleston, Tenn., plant.

South Korean conglomerate Hanwha has agreed to purchase the wafers to manufacture solar cells.  Hanwha is the largest supplier of solar units to Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., parent company of the utility Florida Power & Light Co.

Wacker and Hanwha have agreed to invest a total of $25 million, a key endorsement of the project, van Mierlo said.

ARPA-E seed money
The OMB budget blueprint issued last week proposes killing the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program that the company has counted on, as well as funding for ARPA-E. The administration has targeted $54 billion in proposed fiscal 2018 budget cuts from DOE and other non-defense agencies, to balance the same amount of increases in defense spending.

Read more at Tech Jobs or Spending Cuts:  A Trump White House Dilemma

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