Solar PV Product Developer Partners with Custom Plastic Film Extruder
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Strategic manufacturing plan will enable quick ramp-up and provide flexible capacity for meeting swings in demand
By Mark Shortt
Editorial Director, Design-2-Part Magazine
Although impressive strides have been made in photovoltaic (PV) solar technology through the years, the widespread adoption of PV modules has been limited by their high cost. Dr. David Lee, president and CEO of Santa Clarita, Calif., startup BioSolarTM, Inc., says that two factors are responsible: the scarcity of polysilicon used in the manufacture of traditional solar cells; and the high and volatile pricing of petroleum, which is used to manufacture the plastic substrate, or base, onto which the polysilicon is layered.
While most of the solar industry focuses on reducing cost through increases in photovoltaic efficiency, BioSolar claims to be the first company to introduce "a new dimension of cost reduction." BioSolar has developed a technology aimed at reducing the cost of PV solar modules by replacing petroleum-based plastic solar cell components with less expensive, durable, and environmentally benign bio-based materials produced from renewable plant sources. The company's BioBacksheetTM protective backing, designed to replace petroleum-based backsheets, is currently being tested by numerous solar panel manufacturers.
BioSolar (www.biosolar.com) recently unveiled its strategic manufacturing plan for the production and distribution of its BioBacksheetTM protective backing. The company will perform research and development internally while outsourcing plastics compounding and film extrusion.
"At a time when explosive demand for PV modules globally is fueling demand for module components, building our own manufacturing facilities does not allow us to be flexible, and may actually limit our growth," said Dr. Lee, in a statement. "Recognizing that building our own manufacturing capacity is both extremely capital and management intensive, BioSolar will instead enter into manufacturing supply agreements with experienced plastics compounders and film extruders, allowing us to reduce production costs while simultaneously providing flexible manufacturing capacity to meet increasing demand from PV module manufacturers.
"This strategy leverages Biosolar's unique product development capabilities and ties to the plastics manufacturing industry, allowing both our balance sheet and product inventories to remain 'lean and mean'--a key element in our future success," Dr. Lee continued. "This strategy will allow us to ramp up production quickly by adding suppliers as needed, as well as leverage the expertise and experience of established industrial suppliers to provide consistent high quality from the start.
"By utilizing partners such as Rowland Technologies (www.rowtec.com) in Wallingford, Connecticut, we can bolster our resistance to changes in the economy. BioSolar can respond to swings in demand without having a fixed overhead, providing a consistent profit margin and better returns to our investors," said Lee.
A custom extruder of plastic film and sheet products, Rowland Technologies operates a 60,000-square-foot facility that utilizes advanced design and manufacturing processes to serve industries ranging from aerospace and automotive, to construction, electronics, home furnishings, packaging, and telecommunications. The company produces specialty film and sheet extrusions from a variety of materials, and is the manufacturer of Rowlar™ Fluoropolymer Film for photovoltaic glazing.
Design-2-Part Magazine (D2P) caught up recently with BioSolar's Dr. Lee and Rowland Technologies Senior Vice President, Mike Iovene. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
D2P: How would you characterize BioSolar in terms of its position in the manufacturing supply chain?
Dr. David Lee (DL): We are a product developer and component supplier.
D2P: Can you describe for our readers what a backsheet is?
DL: A backsheet is the bottom-most layer of typical photovoltaic solar modules. Its function is to provide electrical insulation, mechanical integrity, and protection from the environment, such as moisture and other elements.
D2P: What is the composition of the bio-based BioBacksheet?
DL: The current version [that we are going into production with] has a main component, a polyamide called nylon 11, which is derived from castor bean oil. We also put in a mineral filler to enhance certain properties of the polymer.
D2P: What are the keys to the durability and reliability of the BioBacksheet?
DL: Most important is the fact that it's a single layer, a monolayer. When our chief technology officer, Stanley Levy, looked at the typical three-layer construction backsheets that have been deployed in the field, he saw that many years of usage sometimes result in a certain form of delamination between layers. Usually, those layers are put together by adhesives. Single layer construction will not have the issue of delamination.
D2P: How does BioBacksheet provide a cost advantage over similar grades of conventional petroleum-based backsheets?
DL: There are two different reasons why. One: take an example of a fluoropolymer, such as Tedlar. These polymers are produced using a chemically extensive process of strengthening the material. Some use DMAC, which is a highly toxic chemical, to be able to produce the material that meets the PV requirements. And that's not cheap, either. Our bio-based polymer doesn't have to go through any of that special processing, so material costs can be lower. Also, it only has one layer, so there will be no process of lamination during manufacturing, which also saves costs.
D2P: Why did you choose Rowland Technologies as a manufacturing partner?
DL: The biggest thing that was important to me was credibility--business people whom we can trust and can count on to produce a quality product. We were looking for somebody we can really rely on, on an ongoing basis, and that was the biggest reason why we picked Rowland.
D2P: What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to bring a product to market, and how can Rowland help?
DL: In terms of manufacturing these films, it's not such a simple matter for a newcomer to be able to get it right the first time. Those who have been in this business for a long time, such as Rowland, already know what would be the best way to manufacture this film in the most cost-effective manner. So their experience and their ability--both their facilities and their cumulative knowledge--will be a major help for BioSolar.
D2P: For BioSolar, are there any particular advantages to partnering with a U.S. contract manufacturer, as opposed to going overseas?
DL: Absolutely. In fact, I used to have an overseas contract manufacturing partner that I worked with in the '90s. And there are a lot of pros and cons of working with a foreign versus a U.S. contract manufacturer. The definite pros of working with U.S. contract manufacturers are the stability of the proven business relationships, which you can monitor and always make sure they are there; and quality of workmanship. I [can count on] American quality workmanship much more than foreign quality workmanship in this particular field of business, based on my experience. And most critical is the ability to interact closely, in a personal manner, and be able to work as a team to achieve the common goal, which is sometimes very difficult when working with foreign manufacturers.
D2P: Since beginning commercial production in May, how would you describe the demand for the BioBacksheet?
DL: The initial response has been very positive, but as you might know, the PV industry is maturing. And that means that manufacturers are going to be a lot more careful in choosing new components that go into their PV modules. Manufacturers now recognize that, and they understand that their future liability will depend on what kind of stringent tests they're going to have to put these new components through. For that reason, many of these PV manufacturers are now engaging BioSolar to work with their own internal testing processes. In these testing programs, we are required to perform a list of much more stringent tests than the traditional set of PV component tests. These are very time-consuming processes, but we are making steady progress as we work closely with PV manufacturers.
Therefore, we do not expect high-volume demand in the short term. However, all the indications in our working relationships with PV manufacturers sound very positive, and we're very excited about where we are going.
D2P: What gave you the idea to develop a bio-based backsheet?
DL: Solar PV modules are supposed to provide green energy. Many people don't even think about it, but the materials [that are] used to make solar panels are not necessarily contributing to the green environment. Stan and I thought that maybe we should start replacing what we can, one at a time, with a material that doesn't have the same kind of negative environmental impact. We identified the backsheet as the easiest among all the PV module components to replace with bio-based or renewable materials.
D2P: Thank you, Dr. Lee. Mike, can you tell us about Rowland's capabilities as a custom extruder of plastic film and sheet?
Mike Iovene (MI): We have a pretty broad range of capabilities, in terms of thickness and in terms of the types of materials that we can run. We are running monolithic films and sheet anywhere from 0.002 (two thousandths) up to greater than a quarter inch. We have a significant amount of expertise in surface texturing of those materials. And we can produce a wide variety of materials, including nylon, nylon 11, polycarbonate, acrylic, polysulfone, polyphenylsulfone, polyetherimide, static-dissipative materials, cellulosic materials, and of course, also PVDF--a fluoropolymer that we have, in the last year and a half or so, have begun to extrude.
D2P: What are the main markets that Rowland Technologies currently serves?
MI: Our main markets are graphic arts; the signage industry, which includes not only engraved signs, but road signs--the materials and films for those products. We do a significant amount of materials for the reusable surgical tray market; we do films for in-mold decorating; photovoltaics; special lighting; point-of-purchase display market; specialty packaging market; and a lot of what I'll call specialty applications, which could be materials that are specific to an application or product. Those could be in the display market; those could be in the LED market; or they could be materials and films for seals and gaskets and things like that.
D2P: Rowland's markets include LEDs, in the area of energy efficiency, and photovoltaics, in the area of renewable energy. Are these applications becoming increasingly popular?
MI: No question about it. We started with our photovoltaic interests probably about two-and- a-half years ago, and that has really been a process of first learning the market and understanding the types of requirements and capabilities we would need to involve ourselves in the market. And we've really seen significant interest and activity in that.
As far as the LED market, we make a lot of products that either get coated, not necessarily specifically for the LED market, but coated and also surfaced, manipulated for these emerging light-management applications, which include LEDs.
D2P: Rowland Technologies manufactures RowlarTM Fluoropolymer Film for photovoltaic glazing. What are the applications and benefits of this film?
MI: That's a front sheet application. As David previously talked about, the BioBacksheet that we are working with them on is a backsheet application. But this is a front sheet application, and it's very good for thin-film photovoltaics and even in a number of crystalline silicon applications where a thin film front sheet is necessary based on their design and configuration. It certainly is significant in the area of weight reduction, and it also has many advantages in the areas of transparency, abrasion resistance, and, certainly, very outstanding weathering capability.
We are, on this product, partnered with Arkema, who makes a PVDF resin called Kynar. And we work very closely in partnership with them to develop--and have developed--the formulation and resources required to get this product to market.
D2P: As a contract manufacturer, what's your greatest strength?
MI: We have several strengths that we're constantly focusing on internally in order to provide prompt, innovative solutions to customers. First and foremost, that's how we approach things when we look at projects and customers and their needs. We really want to provide them innovative solutions very quickly.
We have a lot of strengths in extruding difficult materials in a wide range of thicknesses and textures. As I said, we do a lot with surface texturing of films and controlling those textures. We have a product which has small parabolic lenses embossed on both sides of the film, and that really creates some unique optical characteristics. And we do a lot to manipulate those lenses in order to create many different looks of that product.
We also really work to stay close to our customers and work discreetly with them to develop their end product in the most cost-effective way possible.
D2P: How are you able to help customers reduce total costs, as opposed to piece price of the part?
MI: That would lie primarily in the way that we try to bring solutions to them. That is, what we try to do is figure out, based on their specific project, how we could do things a little differently in order to help them either eliminate steps and/or eliminate processes that they would need to do.
We're very capable in converting materials as well. We have a lot of converting capability offline, and that is, slitting, sheeting, trimming and squaring of sheets. So all that capability within our manufacturing umbrella helps to provide customers with that total solution, rather than going through different channels to get some of these things done.
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