Dr. Ashok Sood, President & CEO of Magnolia Solar, discusses his company’s plan to grow his thin film solar cell business by securing government contracts.
|Ben lack:||The US Military is trying to take some innovative steps to be responsible about how they consume and generate energy. From a solar power perspective, how is the military doing? What steps are they taking that are right and what can they do to improve?|
|Ashok Sood:||Let me try to answer that in multiple ways so that I can give you a little bit bigger overview on that. The early adoption of solar cells basically was because of the satellite. Lockheed and Boeing are 2 companies that are very active in that business. I worked for Lockheed-Martin for many years. For satellite applications, there is limited real estate because of the emphasis has been on developing high efficiency solar cells using “III-G” materials. What I mean is Gallium Arsenide based technology. One of the big players for space solar cells is a company called Spectrolab, which was acquired by Boeing about 15 years ago. So, the emphasis has been on trying to develop solar cells that are effectively well over 40% efficiency. The garden variety solar cell i.e. silicon-based solar cells, CdTe/CdS solar cells will not meet the requirements. These solar cells do not have high efficiency for space applications. They cells generally tend to be between 14 to 20% efficiency depending upon the quality of the material. Some of the other applications include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).There is interest in trying to see if we can use some of the high efficiency flexible solar cells on flexible materials that could be put on the skin of the aircraft or drone to allow it to generate more electricity, so they can put more sensors on it. The third piece is soldiers go on covert operations in harms’ way. They tend to have a lot of batteries to carry and batteries basically weigh about 20 pounds of their backpack, which is about an 80 pound backpack. So, if you could develop a solar cell which is a very high efficiency but can also be rolled up, now people are looking at different technologies for it. Their goal would be to get flexible solar cell that would do at least 30% or 40% efficiency and yet be flexible. For the defense application, the emphasis has been on ‘how do we develop a very high efficiency solar cell’. In the commercial marketplace, the cost is very important. It’s got to be under a dollar a watt. Recent news about Solyndra where after a billion dollars, they found out they can’t manufacture it at a low enough cost. The emphasis for defense is to meet the performance requirement and the second one is that you can make it reasonably cheap. Because if it’s $1/watt or $2/watt it’s not going to make or break the mission because the foremost thing for defense application is to meet the requirements. We have several programs with the Air Force and with NASA. We are trying to develop a high efficiency single junction solar cell; we call it a quantum structured solar cell and the idea is you want to be able to absorb sun energy for the entire spectrum. You basically have 3 components to it. The ultraviolet (UV) component to it which is the stuff that humans cannot see but you do get sunburn from it. Whether it’s cloudy or not, you still get the ultraviolet through. The other part is the visible light which is what most solar cells absorb and then there is the third component called the infra-red portion. So, if you look at the ultra violet and infra-red portion, that’s about 50% of the energy that generally gets wasted by silicon solar cells and a whole garden variety of solar cells. They lose a lot of energy, so we are trying to work on is how can I absorb all the 3 parts of the spectrum so I can get a much higher efficiency? In other words, at the end of the day you want to get the highest possible voltage and the highest possible current for higher power output. There’s no magic to it. If you can do that, you’ve got a much higher efficiency solar cell. All the different tricks people are looking at is that. The second component of that is, when the light hits the solar cell, it generally tends to lose about 15 to 20% of the energy by reflection loses also. We are working on a nanostructure based antireflection coating, that we have developed, that allow us to absorb 98% of the energy across the whole spectrum.|
|Ben Lack:||Can you briefly tell us a little bit about this nanostructure technology?|
|Ashok Sood:||I can’t talk too much about it but we have filed some patents, there are some more patents going in. It’s called the oblique angle nanostructure coating, so if you look at a piece of uncoated glass, you still lose about 10% of the energy and even more so, but by putting this nanostructure coating on top, you can absorb 98% of the energy across a very broad swath of angles. So, what I’m really saying is that when the light hits at an oblique angle, in the morning or in the evening, a lot of the energy is lost but we can absorb it quite rapidly. We have shown that the transmission of the light is well over 98%. One of the things we are working on right now is trying to go to a larger size and commercialize the technology. So, we can even not only apply this technology to our own solar cell but we can help guys who do silicon solar cells and license them r this technology for a large area, but we’re a little bit away from that yet.|
|Ben Lack:||Based on the existing market conditions, give me what your biggest challenge is right now as you try to grow the business.|
|Ashok Sood:||The challenge is that we are an early stage company. One of the things we have done was that we have decided to apply for the government funding for a lot of our high-end R&D first and we’ve been very fortunate because of the Air Force and NASA and the Army thinking very highly of what we are doing, so we have won several SBIR/STTR programs. I think when we start to begin to commercialize, we have to go out and raise between $3 to $5 million dollars for commercialization in matching funds. We also plan to work with some equipment manufacturers and so forth. So, we are starting to think about that issue. Right now, with all the bad press about Solyndra and how they burned through 1 billion dollars and filed for bankruptcy, to me, it’s unconscionable that a whole bunch of VCs spent a half a billion dollars on trying to do something and nobody asked the question, ‘well how expensive is this’? And then for Government to provide another half a billion dollars from the DOE and then the thing goes under. It’s a little bit of a tough time for the whole solar industry in general anyway, unless you’re one of the big boys like a First Solar which has done a very effective job.
The second issue really is, right now, it’s not cost effective to manufacture anything in the United States for the solar area. Most guys are running to China because that’s where all the incentives and investments are. That’s a whole different issue and that goes back to the issue of we as a country have to have a national energy policy. I was just giving a talk and not too long before I talked about that issue that until we come up with a national energy policy, we are going to be basically selling our technology to China and buying the panels back from them. That’s unfortunately what’s going to happen, but that’s not something I need to deal with, this is a national debate and we need to make the investment to build more manufacturing in the US. What we are trying to do is we are trying to learn how to walk before we run. We are basically developing this technology by getting the money from the government to pay for the technology development for high efficiency solar cells and as we start to look at commercializing this for defense applications. One of the advantages of working for the defense is, as they see progress they are willing to find ways to fund it under larger programs and so forth. That’s what we are counting on and many times they will say if you come up with 50% of match, we’ll give you a much larger effort for Phase III and commercialization That’s kind of the direction we are looking to go.
|Ben Lack:||Can you give us a little bit of insight to what it’s like working with the Air Force on a program like this?|
|Ashok Sood:||Oh, it’s fun. I have a history working with the defense for many years. I worked for Honeywell, Loral, Lockheed, BAE Systems, so I understand how the defense applications works. I’m very comfortable with it. The thing with defense that many companies don’t understand, is when they need money you don’t go and say, I need money and give it to me now. You have to think through that. I’m right now writing proposals for not only next year, but the year after. You have to plan 18 months in advance and that’s a mindset people don’t understand. In the defense business you have to give enough time, understand the requirements and continue to work with your customers and let them know where we are and where you’re trying to go and so forth. It takes a lot of effort so we are very comfortable with that.|
|Ben Lack:||There’s many say that the branches of the military are very aggressive in implementing new technologies to their operation, but there’s definitely still learnings that the military have each and every day. Based on the nanotechnology that you guys have and the solutions that you’re going to offer to the Air Force, what types of learnings are they getting from you to better help them understand how to incorporate your technology and solar power in general into the operations of the Air Force?|
|Ashok Sood:||I think the Air Force, Navy and the Army are already pretty knowledgeable about this area. One of the things we know and what we tell them is that, if you’re looking to buy a garden variety of solar cell, you’re not going to get the performance that you’re looking for. In order to optimize it for the defense applications. That part is very well understood at this point in the defense circles and so forth. Implementation generally works differently in that regard. They will do a development phase and they will do a pilot phase and they will look at it and say, ok can you provide us with X number of things so we can test them out in the field? So, that’s a growth process which is done very differently than in the commercial area. In the commercial area sometimes people get ahead of themselves and it all depends on who is willing to put up the money and have people get behind you. In the defense area, it’s a very methodical, I can’t talk about it here in an open interview but there are certain applications where they are more than happy to try new approaches very quickly, for a variety of operations.|
|Ben Lack:||What would you say are the next steps for Magnolia for the next 6 to 12 months? What does that roadmap look like?|
|Ashok Sood:||One of the things that we did was a two-fold development effort. One is we have a very unique concept that we’ve filed patents on, we have about 10 patents filed at this point and our goal is to have 30 patents in the next couple of years, so that we protect our IP very effectively. In 2009, we had a couple of interesting concepts that we were looking at and we went to talk to NYSERDA in Albany, New York. We made a commitment to grow in the capital region, so we set up our pilot facility in Albany, New York. Our company’s headquarters are located in Massachusetts. We do a lot of business with MIT but it’s not an area for solar cell manufacturing. The thing that impressed me about the Albany area is the Albany Nanotech facilities. We were one of the first companies that located in Albany Nanotech. So, we’re working with NYSERDAS. We won a competitive proposal jointly with CNSE and RPI for development of high efficiency solar cells. They gave us a $1 million program to evaluate this device structures and the concept for commercial applications. In 2010, we developed this nana-structured coating. NYSERDA liked what we were doing and we won another Phase I $250,000 contract to design and test innovative solar cell devices. In 2011, we also won a NASA SBIR program for NASA satellite applications. Our goal in 2011 is to file additional patents, so we’ve got 6 already so we should have more than 11 patents by the end of the year. Our goal in 2012 is that if all the programs that we‘re working on come through, we will have close to several million dollars in funding to demonstrate high efficiency thin film solar cells for defense and NASA applications. Then we can begin to look at how do we integrate that into high efficiency thin film solar cell both for defense and commercial applications. One of the very exciting things that happened in New York is, award of a program called PVMI, Photovoltaic Manufacturing Initiative. It was announced by Secretary Chu and it was a competitive award. Albany won the largest lions’ share of it, $58 million dollar program and we were part of the team. There were 2 other smaller awards. One in San Francisco area to a pilot facility and the second one went to Stanford and Berkeley. They got a $25 million R&D program. This Program will build next generation Thin Film Pilot facility. In addition NY State and NYSERDA are investing $100 million+ to build 2 buildings next to Albany nanotech site to match this program. So there’s $158 million between state, NYSERDA and the federal government that has gone into this program already. We don’t have to go build a pilot facility. That’s where a lot of companies get into trouble. We will have access to this facility in Albany where we are co-located. Once we have shown the capability then we will begin to look at the transition process defense and commercial applications. If we can demonstrate what we said we will do, I think we will have a very large business with the defense and commercial sector.|
|Ben Lack:||So why are you in this business and why does this industry interest you?|
|Ashok Sood:||My first job out of the Ph.D. program the University of Pennsylvania was working for a solar cell company called Mobil-Tyco Solar Energy Corporation during the energy crisis back in 1974, the oil embargo. Mobil Oil Corporation and Tyco Laboratories which now is a huge conglomerate, they were a small company at that time and they set up a joint venture called Mobil-Tyco Solar Energy Corporation and that was my first job. I’ve been in the solar business for many applications. Some of them I can’t even talk about. So, this is in my blood.|
|Ben Lack:||What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve experienced while you’ve been in this industry?|
|Ashok Sood:||There are an awful lot of people who oversell what can be accomplished. They will say things just so they can get venture funding which does more disservice to the solar industry and the country. I said look, the 3 biggest marketplaces for solar was Germany and Scandinavian countries. They don’t get a lot of sun because they don’t have any other alternatives, so they focus on that issue. Whereas, we as a nation have not dealt with that issue, but when you look at it and the thing I say always is that sun shines everyday whether you like it or not. There’s energy to be had, why not take advantage of it? Even if you did 10% to 20% over the next decade or 2 decades, that is an enormous business. Here and worldwide, some of the places are spending more in their area than other places are so to answer your question, I think this is the right thing to do for me, this is what I enjoy doing, we’re excited about it and that gets me going. Until the climate changes in the United States for manufacturing and this has nothing to do with tax cuts or tax this and that and all that, one of the reasons is, I’m sure you’re very knowledgeable about this, is the reason China is grown so much is they made a conscious decision to bring a lot of the technology in manufacturing in China and they’ve invested $30 billion a year over the last several years. We have not done that, so companies what they do is, they will develop all the core technology and so forth and then they go into manufacturing and they get into trouble because the cost structures are so high in the US. So, anybody like a First Solar or other companies, what they do is build their biggest facility in Indonesia, they’re building a huge facility in China, so they are trying to go to places with lower cost structure areas and I think that’s the business model that will survive at this point in time. Until we as a country make a decision that we have to make the investment into clean energy jobs, that’s my biggest worry so I don’t even look upon manufacturing in the United States at all until there is a commitment at the national level to bring Solar manufacturing in the US. I’m of Indian origin so for commercialization, I see a large opportunity. In India over 300 million out of 1.2 billion people are not even connected to the grid. The shortage of power and lack of reliable grid, I look upon possible joint ventures in India, for defense applications, we will manufacture in the Albany region. I was at a defense meeting not too long ago and one of the comments I made and people agreed with me. We have no trouble spending $150 to $200 billion per year to go fight a war somewhere. But as a nation, to make ourselves energy independent by spending 50-75 billion a year is something that we have a hard time making that happen and that’s what it’s going to take. Otherwise, I tell people if we don’t do something drastic, we will be importing solar panels from China. The recent Doe program that was won by Albany Nanotech is just a down payment on where we need to go for the technology and manufacturing edge for next generation thin film solar cells. This is a good start but it will need a much larger effort at a national level to make renewable energy part of the mix.|