Shining example of innovation in solar power
Edward Duffy: "Our technology gives solar cell manufacturers what they really want - dry etching"
Start-up Nation: Nines Photovoltaics:Fledgling solar cell equipment manufacturer set to revolutionise sector worth €2.5bn
Entrepreneur Edward Duffy is unequivocal about solar power. “It is going to be absolutely huge and the world is quietly waking up to its potential,” he says. “Solar power may not be top of the agenda in Ireland where geography makes wind more relevant as a source of energy. But in places like the States, it is the next big thing and to me it made sense to ‘hitch my wagon’ to this growing area.”
Duffy has put his money where is mouth is in fledgling solar cell equipment manufacturer, Nines Photovoltaics, which Duffy co-founded with Laurent Clochard (CTO) and Simon Forsyth (CFO).
Both Duffy and Clochard have been through the high-tech start-up process before at Trinity College spin-out Magnetic Solutions. “We learned a lot about the business side of things during that process which we have been able to apply,” Duffy says. “That said, when we started off four years ago, we knew very little about solar cell manufacturing, so we were on a massive learning curve. It was certainly a risk, but I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny and I felt this is where it lay.”
It has taken two-and-a-half years for the company to develop its innovative technology that will dramatically change the processes used to manufacture solar cells. Creating a solar cell involves etching away layers of silicon and, up to now, this was a wet chemical process. Nines has developed a dry etching technology that reduces the production cost and increases cell efficiencies. It also dramatically lowers cell manufacturers’ water consumption.
“The areas of cost reduction and increased cell efficiency are of the utmost importance to solar cell manufacturers at the moment as they look for a competitive advantage in order to survive this period of major consolidation within the PV industry,” Duffy says.
To date Nines, (which is still pre-revenue), has been financed by its founders with support from Enterprise Ireland and funding from the EU under its Seventh Framework Programme. The company has also raised some €1.3 million from private investors. Nines is based at the Synergy Centre on the Tallaght IT campus and is a former participant in its New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development programme.
This year, Nines will be looking for what Duffy describes as “serious money” to provide the impetus to launch the technology on the wider market. Making that journey a lot smoother will be the nod of approval for its pioneering technology from Fraunhofer ISE in Germany, the largest solar energy research institute in Europe.
Nines reached a milestone recently when it completed the build of its first industrial silicon wafer processing tool and shipped it to Fraunhofer for validation in a production environment. “Fraunhofer ISE operates at the cutting edge of innovative solar technology and is one of only two places in the world that can certify solar cell efficiencies,” Duffy says. “They will provide an ideal platform to benchmark our process and to promote the technology to solar cell manufacturers worldwide.
“Fraunhofer know us, as we have been working with them on this technology since 2010. Our technology will help move the solar industry closer to grid parity – the point at which solar electricity can compete on level terms with electricity generated from the burning of fossil fuels.”
With the technology ready, Duffy says the next challenge is to convince potential customers to install a Nines machine and start designing their processes around it.
“There is a long lead time involved in making this happen – two years or even longer sometimes – but having the support of Fraunhofer will help as the industry looks to them for new technologies.
“Our technology gives solar cell manufacturers what they really want – dry etching. Up to now the issue with dry etching has been affordability. Our technology makes it possible for manufacturers to produce very cost-effectively and to scale up at a time when the need for lower cost manufacturing solutions has never been greater.”
Nines employs five people and this is expected to grow to between 20 and 30 at full capacity. “What we are looking at is a high-tech, high-value-added proposition rather than an enterprise that needs a large number of employees,” Duffy says. “We are also looking at outsourcing the manufacture of the machines as there is a limit to what we could achieve ourselves and the market potential is massive.
“Right now the market value in etching machines is around €2.5 billion and this is going to grow and grow. Up to now solar cell manufacturing has been niche. It’s about to become one of the biggest manufacturing sectors in the world.”