1366 Technologies, a startup spun-out of MIT that aims to raise solar panel efficiency without increasing cost, announced this week that it has developed a manufacturing process to produce multicrystalline solar panels with an 18% efficiency—twice the efficiency of ultra-cheap thin film panels and significantly more efficient than other polysilicon panels, which generally top off at a 15% sun to energy conversion rate.
"This 15% increase in efficiency (going from 15 or 16% to 18%) is a big cost lever," says Craig Lund, 1366's director of business development. "It effectively will cut costs by 15% across the entire supply chain," he explained. "This is because you have fewer module racks, workers, etc. to deliver the same amount of power."
1366 Technologies is far from the only company to develop high-efficiency solar cells. Sunpower produces solar cells that are at least 20% efficient, and Kyocera's multicrystalline models are over 18% efficient. But 1366 claims that its cells are cheaper to make, with a production cost of just 80 cents per watt—little more than the price of electricity (read: coal power) during peak hours. And while thin-film panels boast low prices now, 1366 is betting that shortages of materials necessary for thin film production, including indium, telluride, and cadmium, will become a problem in the future. Silicon, in contrast, is in no danger of running into a shortage.
1366 is designing machines to produce its solar cells now, with commercial production expected in less than two years. The company is also in talks with a number of major solar cell companies that hope to license its technology.