Lund University, in the southernmost Swedish province of Scania, has a long tradition of turning scientific research into technological innovation. Ultrasound, dialysis, and Bluetooth technology are all examples of discoveries that have their roots at the institution.
The nearby Ideon Science Park is home to a number of companies that grew out of the University’s research departments. Among their ranks is Sol Voltaics, a Swedish startup, that manufactures miniscule structures less than one billionth of a meter wide, known as nanowires. These nanowires link tiny components into extremely small circuits and have a wide variety of commercial applications.
Sol Voltaics uses the unique light absorption properties of nanowires to create their signature product, Solink, an ink-like material, which when added to solar panels can increase their efficiency by up to 25%. The expensive and highly specialized equipment needed to manufacture nanomaterials means that they are currently only produced on a small scale in laboratories around the world. But, Sol Voltaics is currently developing a production line to manufacture the nanostructures on an industrial scale.
“We have a proof of concept for the factory and hope to have the machines up and running by the end of the year. Right now, we have over 120 patents, both granted and pending ones, there is a lot of know how in this business, and its a very groundbreaking thing that we are trying to do,” says Erik Olsson director of business development at Sol Voltaics.
In 2008, a group of researchers led by Professor Lars Samuelson launched the company after his efforts to improve solar panel efficiency using nanomaterials started producing spectacular results. They received early backing with a $22.9 million investment from Foundation Asset Management and began the difficult transition from a research laboratory into a competitive business.
But significant challenges still remain for the firm, which recorded a $2 million loss in 2012, driven by employee costs of $1.4 million. Unless they can scale up production of their nanotubes quickly and cost effectively, they are in danger of being snuffed out by the market incumbents.
Three years of consolidation in the solar photovoltaic manufacturing industry has created a significant market for Sol Voltaics’ signature product. According to the latest market research by NDP Group’s Solarbuzz, the prices of solar photovoltaic cells have fallen by more than 50% since 2011 while the number of suppliers has declined from 250 in 2010 to 150 in 2013.
This has driven a search for ways to improve the efficiency of these cells, thereby reducing the number of produced and cutting costs. According to Olsson, when Sol Voltaics’ customers see the efficiency gains from its Solink product, they become “religious”.
“When they see that they can have better performance at lower costs, it takes their breath away, the value proposition makes this an extremely compelling market. The solar market is worth $45 billion a year, and we are advancing to the whole market, particularly China,” he says.