Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The secret sauce at Durham-based Semprius is apparently creating some exciting recipes for solar power and microcell chip production – at least in the eyes of the CIA.
Mix spooks, spies and advanced technology and the result is … maybe solar-powered drones? Lasers? Phasers?
After all, the so-called “Wizards of Langley” developed the U-2 and a great many other advances in technology. Who knows – Semprius may have the key to a next leap forward in spycraft. But it’s unlikely the general public will ever know what role Semprius and its sciences plays in the espionage and terror wars. We certainly won’t see Semprius logos on Predator drones.
But we do know something …
In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, poured more money into Semprius in the startup’s latest $20 million fund raiser. The funding was disclosed by Semprius in an SEC filing last week, but the company didn’t disclose the investors until Thursday. In-Q-Tel and Durham-based Intersouth are return backers.
The CIA group says it “identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community.”
In the In-Q-Tel investment “technology portfolio,” Semprius is listed in the “physical and biological technologies” category. It first invested in Semprius in a 2009 “B” round.
Siemens, which recently disclosed buying a stake in Semprius, is listed as the lead investor. “This is a technology that can provide higher efficiency levels than conventional photovoltaic and we have high hopes for it,” Siemens’ Maria Baumann told Bloomberg news.
Semprius’ technology includes a patented manufacturing process that enables semiconductors to be printed onto glass, plastic or other materials for use in solar panels, liquid-crystal displays, advanced disk drivers and other devices.
Its process enables transistors to be formed on traditional silicon substrates that in turn can be sliced off and then mounted on flexible displays made of plastic, glass or other materials. The transistors could be produced as thin as 100 nanometers. (One nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.)
Maybe the CIA wants those cells printed on some of its own devices or that microcell production utilized for weapons and surveillance tools.
More funding to come?
The $20 million is listed as the “first tranche” of a Series C round, the company said. In the SEC filing, Semprius set a goal of $30 for the round.
With the new funds, Semprius plans to construct a “pilot plant” for production of its best-known product: solar panel modules. The goal is to prepare the way for large-scale production.
Semprius is banking on continuing growth in demand for solar power and says its technology enables production of “extremely tiny” photovoltaic cells that amplify sunlight “more than 1,000 times.” To help manufacturers, Semprius says its process can be used on existing equipment and with current commodity materials, thus cutting capital and other costs.
“Improving cell efficiency”
What are the advantages of Semprius’ technology?
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory notes that “high-efficiency solar cells … are typically more expensive than conventional cells used for flat-plate photovoltaic systems. However, the concentration decreases the required cell area while also increasing the cell efficiency.”
According to the lab, such technology offers numerous advantages:
• Potential for solar cell efficiencies greater than 40%
• No moving parts
• No intervening heat transfer surface
• Near-ambient temperature operation
• No thermal mass; fast response
• Reduction in costs of cells relative to optics
• Scalable to a range of sizes.
More dollars for microcell production, too
With the additional funding, Semprius also wants to further develop what it calls a “micro-transfer printing process” to improve module production.
So why is In-Q-Tel so interested in Semprius? After all, solar power is important but what use would agents, spooks, spies and operatives have in the field for concentrating photovoltaic microcells?
Maybe the CIA equivalent of James Bond’s “Q” needs cells for the body of his next car – or solar powered sources for all those drones being used in the war on terror.
What’s your guess?
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