With a host of high-profile investors such as the CIA’s In-Q-Tel and having received international recognition from MIT for its solar technology, Durham startup Semprius has never lacked publicity. But the recent establishment of another record for efficiency in converting solar power to electricity and progress toward full-scale production at its new factory in Henderson are real proof by which the firm’s progress can be bench-marked.

In an exclusive Q&A, Semprius Vice President of Business Development Russell Kanjorski discusses the significance of the firm’s latest record for solar efficiency and what’s happening in Henderson.

  • Why is achieving greater efficiency important?

Efficiency is important because it lowers the cost of electricity. If you imagine a large solar field, it will include modules, trackers, wires, inverters, etc. Plus there is the cost of land and labor to install it. If you can cost-effectively increase efficiency, you can decrease the cost of the solar plant on a per watt basis because you are able to install more watts per given unit of steel, copper, acre, labor hour, etc.

  • Can you tell me the key factors that differentiate Semprius from its competitors since you are “two or three times more efficient”?

Our main product advantages are:

(1) high efficiency,

(2) high performance (meaning that our systems generate more kilowatt hours per kilowatt installed),

(3) superior performance in high temperature (less energy losses due to heat),

(4) thin modules (lowers material usage, weight and shipping costs),

(5) simple, industry-standard manufacturing techniques and

(6) high-reliability design.

Of course, all of these differentiators are building blocks toward the end goal of delivering a reliable, cost-effective means of generating solar electricity. In addition, we have made some important partnerships with customers and other players in the industry.

For example, we have a close working relationship with Aerojet Rocketdyne, a key customer of ours. Also, we have partnerships with several of the leading solar tracker providers in the world, giving us the ability to offer a comprehensive solution to our customers.

  • How are you progressing on customer orders?

We have sold products to customers in eight countries and four US states. When appropriate, we will provide updates on specific projects and customers.

  • Are your modules more expensive than your competitors, and does higher efficiency help make you more competitive in the market? As the press continues to report, the cost of many materials related to solar production keep coming down.

I cannot address costs directly, however I can say that we are able to offer a highly competitive solution to customers, particularly in sunny regions like the US Southwest, where our modules significantly outperform conventional PV modules. In our industry, the cost of electricity ($/kWh) is paramount, and this is driven in part by the module cost. For this reason, we are relentless in our cost-reduction efforts as well as our performance improvement efforts – both are important.

  • When will the pilot line move to full production? What are the requirements to remove the “pilot” designation?

Regarding your question about “pilot” production. it is really a continuum. Currently, our capacity is relatively small and several parts of the production process are not fully automated. This is because it was important to keep flexibility in the process early on while improvements were being made. Moving forward, we will be further automating and expanding the production line in order to supply larger projects.

  • How is the task of training employees progressing? I would assume based on the new record and the record set in the R&D demo indicates your work force is developing nicely. How long are employees trained before going on the line?

Training (and process improvement) are never ending activities. Our employees have done a tremendous job transforming an R&D product / process into a robust, high-volume manufacturing process in less than one year. Their professionalism and skill are inspiring.

The fact that we have been able to produce record modules on our manufacturing line as part of our daily routine is a testament to our employees creativity and strong commitment.

  • How many employees now?  How many are working in Henderson; are you still hiring? If so in what areas; how many open positions?

We have  [some] 55 employees and are holding steady at that figure for now. We expect to add positions over time as we expand production efforts.

  • In a press release about the new Semprius record, the firm cited “expitaxial wafers” from a company called Solar Junction. Where is Solar Junction based, and can you explain what an “epitaxial wafer” is.

Solar Junction is a company located in Silicon Valley. They produce what we call “source wafers”. The source wafers are the raw semiconductor material that we use to make solar cells. In our patented process, we lift off the top “epitaxial” layer of the source wafer (which includes the triple junction solar cell material) and we then print that layer onto a small carrier chip so that it can be mounted in our solar module.

Because the cells are so small (about the size of the head of a pin), we call this micro-transfer printing. We can print thousands of cells at a time in a massively parallel process.

This process is important because it allows us to:

(1) reuse the remaining source wafer, saving significant costs in that process, and

(2) cost-effectively manufacture the smallest solar cells in the world, which enables a number of additional module cost savings, that I could describe in more detail verbally.