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Why we need a replacement for glass

Last week I took part in the Australian Technology Competition, an excellent program. After the investor “speed dating” session, John O’Brien asked us to nominate a technology in which we would love to invest.

My response: a replacement for glass.

Glass is a wonder material: transparent, structurally strong, water proof and resistant to weathering. People started making glass in Mesopotamia (now Iraq and northern Syria) over 4,000 years ago.  Today the industry is certainly mature and dominated by a small number of large players. China is a major player, shipping heavy, but extremely cheap

So why do we need a replacement?  Glass is now a significant part of the cost of solar panels.

For crystalline silicon panels, the top costs after the silicon cells include glass, EVA, and aluminium frames. The silver paste for cell interconnects is a big target for cost reduction, but after that it becomes increasingly hard to drive down module costs. At the same time it is getting hard to drive efficiencies further without increasing the cost per Watt.

For thin film PV, the active materials are only a few microns thick and cost in the order of cents per Watt. First Solar has shown there is a lot of efficiency upside (18 or 19%) so we can easily see the cost of the modules tending towards the cost of glass.

So why not use polymers to encapsulate the solar panels?  The main purpose of the glass is to keep out water which can corrode metal and degrade semiconductors.  You can make polymer films that have a Water Vapour Transport Ratio (WVTR) similar to glass by depositing laters of metal oxide over a polymer film that looks like Glad Wrap.  But it ends up being just as expensive as glass due to the cost of materials and use of vacuum deposition tools (even assuming massive scale).

Some may argue that the added flexibility of polymer is a benefit over glass, but most solar panels are mounted on an incline to the sun and the structural rigidity of glass is therefore a benefit.  In addition you still have to worry about UV weathering, scratching and soiling.

The folks who make highly efficient solid state lighting (LED and OLED) and flat scree TV would also love to see an encapsulant as good as glass, but much much cheaper.

So, it’s time to disrupt a 4,000 year old industry!


CalCEF backed Boulder Ionics Corporation brings energy storage opportunity to Australia with support of ARENA, SXVP and SB China Venture Capital.

Early in 2012 the CalCEF Angel Fund invested in the initial VC round in Boulder Ionics Corporation.  Today we are proud to announce that we have helped Boulder Ionics bring their game changing energy storage technology to Australia, and bring Australia’s leading ionic liquid research to the world.

This caps off a recent string of good news from the company including a licensing agreement with HydroQuebec and the appointment of ex Novolytes CEO Ed Frindt as an independent board member.

Just today the company announced a partnership with the CSIRO and funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency through the Southern Cross Renewable Energy Fund. The fund is managed by SXVP and backed by ARENA and SB China Venture Capital. This deal gives the company a great base for Australia and China.

So why all the fuss about ionic liquids and what have they got to do with clean energy?

Batteries are already an essential part of our lives. Just count the number of batteries in your home, workplace or pocket.  In the future batteries will become even more essential as part of the clean energy economy.

  • Large format batteries will store energy from intermittent renewables, perhaps even allow you to disconnect from the grid.
  • Should you choose to stay on the grid, batteries will help stabilise power quality and defer costly upgrades to meet peak loads.
  • Finally, cheap large battery packs will allow you to finally park that exhaust spewing, gas-guzzling dinosaur and zip away in a high performance electric sports car (or SUV).

The problem is that batteries are still very expensive, representing perhaps 40% of the the cost of a Nissan Leaf or Tesla.  A decent battery for your home PV system will cost you tens of thousands.

Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are busy tweaking the lithium ion battery and developing all kinds new batteries like lithium sulphur, molten sodium and metal air batteries. Woo hoo, we can't wait . . . .  but there is a weak link . . . . electrolytes.

Electrolytes are the juice in batteries and capacitors. Ions move through the electrolyte to transport electricity from one electrode to the other. Just like the electrolytes in your body, they don’t provide you with fuel (unless you count the masses of sugar in your Gatorade), but you need them to go fast and far.

All these amazing technologies use the same old organic (carbonate) electrolytes.  It's like lifting the bonnet (hood) of your new Ferrari and finding a clapped out old Beetle engine inside.

And that is a problem because these organic electrolytes are sensitive to high voltages and extremes of temperature. They can decompose, boil, evaporate or even catch fire.

Now a fire is merely inconvenient in your Tesla, since you probably already hit a tree or large metal object, and the chances are much higher that your gas-guzzler catches fire anyway.  The real problem is that engineers have to tweak and hack around the limitations of the electrolytes. For example they can oversize the battery pack, limit the charge and discharge, or simply use a lower performing, but safer chemistry. All of which adds cost and limits performance.

What we really need is a new kind of electrolyte, one that is non-volatile, non-flammable, and stable to high temperatures and voltages.  Plus it would be great if we could boost the voltage of the battery, because that would give us more performance for the same volume, weight and overall cost.  Oh, and one more thing . . . it needs to be cheap, very very cheap.

Scientists have been playing with ionic liquids for a long time. Ionic liquids check all the above boxes for safety and performance, but to buy them at the required high purity meant paying $1,500-2,000 per kilogram. Even then you could only buy them by the thimble full. Ionic liquids were neither cost effective nor scalable.

That is where Boulder Ionics changes the game. They have developed a number of novel ionic liquid electrolytes for batteries and super capacitors giving around 2X performance in early tests.  Perhaps more importantly, they have developed a method to make the ionic liquids cheap, eventually less than a tenth of the current cost.

So is this another capital intensive cleantech deal?  Will they be asking for a $500 million loan guarantee to build a massive manufacturing plant? No, because Boulder Ionics uses microfluidic reactors. The complete production unit is the size of a telephone box.  Each reactor is inexpensive relative to its annual production.  Scaling production for a new order is simply a matter of building another telephone box and plumbing it into the raw materials feed. This is advanced manufacturing of the kind we should be doing in Australia and the US.

Boulder Ionics are already delivering kilogram quantities to customers around the world. Initially you will see ionic liquids deployed in tiny batteries and capacitors in specialist applications. But in a few years you could be driving them away or charging them in your basement.

There are lots of other exciting things you can do with ionic liquids, like refine metalsdissolve pollutionprocess biofuels or even build a transistor that mimics learning in a human synapse.

Australia is already a world leader in ionic liquids research.  This deal creates an opportunity to cement that position and become a centre of excellence for commercial applications.


Looking for CalCEF Angel Fund?

We previously had some some problems with our servers at CalCEF Angel Fund, but you can now find the new website at CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund.

The CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund is a seed and early stage venture capital fund dedicated to clean energy. The Fund deploys deep industry networks and experience to support capital-efficient companies focusing on renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, and related products and services. The Fund objective is to deliver venture capital returns to Limited Partners from investments which transform the clean energy economy. 

Fund investments include Lumetric Lighting (energy efficient industrial lighting), Allopartis Biotechnologies (enzyme optimization), Alphabet Energy (industrial waste heat recovery using silicon), Reel Solar (stealth ultra-low cost thin film photovoltaics), and Boulder Ionics (ionic liquid electrolytes for energy storage).

Co-investors include Claremont Creek Ventures, CMEA, JSR Corporation, Mayfield Fund, Nth Power, Pangaea Ventures, Sempra Utilities, Texas Pacific Group, and X/Seed Capital.

Limited Partners include large pension funds, fund-of-funds, global retail wealth managers, foundations, prominent law firms, family offices, angel investors, and and our founding limited partner the California Clean Energy Fund.

The CalCEF Angel fund offers Limited Partners an unprecedented degree of transparency and hands-on participation in the fund.  The team includes Susan Preston and Paul Fox.

For further information, please use the contact page of this website.


Advice for international companies seeking US investment

Khimji Vaghjiani, CEO of Solar Gem visited me in February. Khimji is an Australian solar entrepreneur with his eyes on developing markets. He was in the US as part of the annual G'Day USA showcase of Australian technology.

Khimji posted his learnings here: Six things you should know before meeting with a US venture capitalist (Anthill Magazine).  His post is based in meetings with US investors and his experience with the ANZA Technology Network program.

Bottom Line: If you want US venture capital investment, then become a "US" company (but keep the stuff that makes you great).


We're back!

The Semiconductor Industry Association just reported that semiconductor sales rose 17% quarter on quarter. That is great news as semiconductors are a bell weather for downstream sales in the high tech industry.  The ordering lead times on semiconductors (sometimes as much as 3-4 months) mean that buyers are planning for growth.

Another good sign is the widely reported uptick in clean-tech investing in the second quarter.  Although early stage investing continues to be the best bet until economic visibility improves. Companies raising B & C rounds will still find it tough.  Funds from the US stimulus should also start flowing in this half of the year.

Bottom Line: Looks like tech is coming back, and green-tech will be a strong sector. But don't pop the champagne corks just yet - you will still need to conserve cash as we struggle out of this.