Friday, July 05, 2013

Natcore Technology Using LPD in Solar Things

Natcore Technology (NXT.V / NTCXF) is trying to do interesting work in thin-film solar.  It's appropriate enough for me to cover them since I'll attend the SEMICON West 2013 / Intersolar North America conference next week, so this is how I get psyched up for solar action.

Natcore's CEO is a former Wall Street executive, not a solar industry executive.  That's understandable if their most important challenge right now is to raise capital, but at some point they will need an experienced solar hand in charge.  They do have some smart science folks on the team who understand electrical engineering and material science.

Their approach rests heavily on the application of liquid phase deposition (LPD) to "grow" solar cells.  They are developing other  technologies whose solar efficiency gains appear to be cumulative:  LPD manufacturing, black silicon (licensed from NREL), tandem cells, and flexible cells.  They also propose to commercialize other technologies like a shielding fabric.  It's difficult for a layperson like me to parse the advantages or disadvantages of these approaches.  Natcore apparently outsourced the development of their LPD processing station to MicroTech Systems. 

Black silicon has been around for three decades and NREL indicates it can generate over 18% efficiency in solar cells.  Curiously, independent research in Finland has confirmed this finding.  Natcore has competition from Black Silicon Solar.

Natcore's thin film cells will have to be cheap if they're going to beat First Solar's thin film cells.  First Solar's weakness in thin film is its dependence on tellurium, so Natcore needs to demonstrate that its processes are not hostage to rare earth element supply shortages.  I wonder whether Natcore's estimate of $40-50M in capital outlays for a thin film production line is realistic.  I'll have a better idea once I talk to some experts at SEMICON.

Natcore is just getting started with commercializing these scientific developments, so they really ought to be considered a startup.  I don't know why they went IPO without proven revenue streams.  The Harvard Business Review case study on Natcore mentions their strategy to manufacture in China.  It's worth noting that China is offering new export quotas on solar panels to settle a trade dispute with the EU.  I would want to know whether this quota will affect Natcore.  They need to export something from somewhere if they're going to be viable.

Full disclosure:  No position in Natcore Technology (or other companies mentioned) at this time.