Solar research firm makes last stand with Reno move

A research firm has moved to Reno to conduct a last-ditch effort to create affordable solar cells.

Gary Owens, president of Owens Technology, Inc., moved his company to Reno for what he calls "the last hurrah" in research.

The 11,000-square-foot facility near Rock and Longley, spacious digs for the firm's three employees, provides room for expansion and storage of materials, says Owens. And, it's more than twice the space at the same price for what he paid in Palo Alto, Calif.

Founded in 2000, the firm has explored and discarded two methods of making the manufacture of solar cells affordable.

The high cost of installing solar panels on rooftops to heat homes and offices has hobbled widespread adoption of the technology.

And, the first two attempts by Owens Technology failed.

The first involved a method of holding down energy costs used in production of the material. The second involved a new method of slicing silicon to decrease waste.

This, the third and final try, is a patented process that attempts to cleave very, very, very thin pieces of silicon, says Owens, so that less covers more.

Basic metallurgical grade silicon made from sand, sawdust and coke, fired in an electric furnace is 98 to 99 percent pure, says Owens, But purifying that last 1 percent is pricey.

The base grade, manufactured by Norwegians using geothermal power, costs about $60 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

But by the time the pure grade is ready to slice up into solar cells, it can cost as much as $200 per kilogram. That's because it's distilled using halogens and chlorine, and it takes pricey equipment to resist the chlorine, says Owns. Plus, a lot of energy goes into production.

Owens funded the privately-owned firm with funds from software development during the boom. Despite a foray into computers, his work with solar cells brought a return to his roots in chemistry and physics.

Third time's the charm.

And if this third attempt to create affordable solar cell technology fails, says Owens, he will retire.


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