Bright Idea, Broad Application
For nearly three decades, PowerFilm’s expertise in semiconductor and solar energy development and research has led to the creation a highly innovative, durable and lightweight technology that harnesses the power of the sun for a diverse range of uses.
Solar is a safe and sustainable energy source that offers cost savings as well as a viable alternative renewable power supply with unlimited potential. Countries like China are driving innovation by making large investments in this growing area.
PowerFilm has designed and manufactured a thin, flexible solar panel that is made of amorphous silicon and produced via a proprietary process. As a result, the company has become a global developer and manufacturer of American-made, integrated thin-film solar products.
Amorphous silicon (a-Si) is the non-crystalline form of silicon that is used as a semiconductor material for solar cells, among other uses. A thin film of the inexpensive a-Si coats a flexible base creating an environmentally-friendly photovoltaic cell. Recent refinements in a-Si cell builds have made the technology useful for larger solar cells.
Innovation is present in all levels of PowerFilm and has been since its inception. The Ames, Iowa-based company was founded in 1988 by Dr. Frank Jeffrey and Dr. Derrick Grimmer who had been employed by 3M as research physicists.
Amorphous silicon, “had a very nice roll-to-roll manufacturing process,” Dr. Frank Jeffrey explained. “It had some important social benefits, and it even had the possibility of being a profitable product which made it extremely attractive overall.”
Roll-to-roll processing is the process by which electronic devices can be printed or otherwise applied to a roll of flexible metal foil or plastic. Once printed or coated, they are then re-rolled –hence the name.
“We did a lot of early development there, and when it got to the point of 3M’s operating committee deciding whether they were going to put big money into manufacturing or not, they decided they were not a semiconductor company and that it didn’t make sense for them.” Seeing the value in this product led Dr. Jeffrey and Dr. Grimmer to spin off to try to commercialize their technology.
The two formed Iowa Thin Film Technologies, which later became PowerFilm. The first several years were spent developing the capabilities to manufacture the products in a cost-effective manner, and once they were successful, PowerFilm was under production.
PowerFilm was introduced in the mid-1990s and grew in the 2000s. Early support came from the U.S. Army, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, and their backing helped PowerFilm expand its products and their uses.
“The army is a nice place to start, because they evaluate things very carefully, and they’re not afraid to try something new if they’re of the judgment that it is going to help out,” noted Dr. Jeffrey. “They are willing to try new things, so that’s been a proving ground for some of our products.” PowerFilm also accommodates industrial needs and creates custom products to suit the requirements of OEM clients.
“It made a lot of sense with the format and the manufacturing process we used, and we thought we could be a major player in the field,” said Dr. Jeffrey. The years prior to the global financial crisis and resulting recession in the late-2000s led PowerFilm to undertake a public offering to fund expansion and combat the economic challenges of the time.
When the economy returned, China had transformed the solar market and posed a real challenge to PowerFilm and other companies who could not take advantage of Chinese infrastructure to remain competitive.
“Our fallback was to continue on the specialty products that we had initially developed: a lot of military products, a number of industrial products that depend on the special properties of our material. So we have since transformed away from that goal and more toward customized, specialty-engineered solar products and solar related energy sources,” Dr. Jeffrey explained.
PowerFilm proudly manufactures in the United States and is one of the few remaining solar-based companies to do so.
“Our choice was to stay with more specialized systems that require a high level of engineering associated with them, along with the special characteristics – the lightweight, flexibility and durability – of our products. It allows us to stay in a differentiated product area where we can maybe survive against the extreme low-cost competition coming from China,” Dr. Jeffrey noted.
The company is ready for growth. Together, PowerFilm and its clients were able to identify opportunities and create complete integrated solar solutions. It has been bringing these products to the market through various channels, including via its industry partners’ existing branding and distribution networks.
As it has grown, its reputation for consistent delivery of quality products and service has grown too. PowerFilm produces quality manufacturing and exemplary custom design supported by cutting edge technical knowledge and expertise.
“We have the ability – because of our engineering capabilities – to design integrated products that work very efficiently for this system. The LightSaver line, which we just started introducing, is essentially a combination or integrated product that has battery storage, electronic controls and solar panels combined into a single unit that’s easy for an individual to carry,” said Dr. Jeffrey.
The solar charger unit is portable and fits in a backpack, purse or pocket, depending on the model. The LightSaver is PowerFilm’s first real foray into consumer personal solar charging devices for cameras, cell phones, GPS and other personal electronics. PowerFilm products come in standard voltages, although custom voltages are available.
“The LightSaver line [comprises] integrated systems designed to provide personal power. It’s something new for us, and working the retail chains is something new for us. We’re pursuing that, and hopefully that will grow into a moderate-sized product line,” stated Dr. Jeffrey.
PowerFilm’s design, with the use of amorphous silicon, enables the charger to be folded or rolled to be used in a multitude of existing products. It can be installed in minutes without the need for drilling and is waterproof and low-profile.
The LightSaver is as thin as paper, with encapsulated modules ranging from 0.22 mm to 1.22 mm in thickness. The thinness is made possible through the use of a plastic (polyimide) substrate and enables the product’s flexibility. PowerFilm supports both large and small scale power generation, offering an efficient and integrated solar power solutions in high- and low-light conditions.
PowerFilm manufactures solar panels for golf carts, RVs and marine use that are waterproof, lightweight and durable. Not only do these cut costs, but there is a significant advantage for the environment, as well as the benefit of a reliable and consistent power source.
The solar film is manufactured using an internally developed, proprietary, roll-to-roll manufacturing process. The company employs roll-to-roll vacuum deposition, printing and laser scribing, bus bar/lead attachment, encapsulation and die cutting. The thirteen-inch wide solar film can be made on a roll up to 2,400 feet long. The low manufacturing costs of this proprietary process mean savings for the consumer.
“Our product is an unusual product,” acknowledged Dr. Jeffrey. “There are no standard available components, manufacturing lines and equipment that will make our technology. We had no choice but to build the machines ourselves. That also allows us to keep closer tabs on the [intellectual property] associated with manufacturing the product.”
“The key to these products are their integration that goes into making the solar module, the battery and the electronics work well together. It’s not typically a huge volume market, but it’s a substantial volume market, and that’s what we’re looking for: a large number of substantial volume markets,” he said, addressing the company’s consumer line.
PowerFilm is also pushing into inter-building communication systems. “We have sensors in a building that needs to communicate with a local computer. To have that happen with an independent sensor, you need a power source and our material works very well in low light levels.”
“It provides enough power to run a sensor, Bluetooth communication and, in some cases, wireless communication nodes. So, that’s a growing area we hope to be providing power for different applications,” noted Dr. Jeffrey.
At the heart of PowerFilm are its people. These employees lead the way, driving innovation much the same as Dr. Jeffrey and Dr. Grimmer did throughout their tenure with 3M.
“It’s good to be in Iowa. It’s particularly good to be in Ames. There is a very strong attitude in Iowa related to work. There is a strong attitude in Ames. We have Iowa State University in Ames, and a lot of our people come from Iowa State. We have a source of excellent employees.”
“I guess we hire an unruly bunch of people,” joked Dr. Jeffrey. “People have quite a bit of freedom to develop and do projects that they wish to do and are encouraged to come up with new ideas.” If it wasn’t for the wildly creative ideas of PowerFilm’s engineering staff, its manufacturing abilities would not be possible.
PowerFilm’s work culture values new ideas, and this proves to be highly attractive to employees. The work environment is flexible, just as the products it creates. “The people who work here, are people that want to be here, are people who want to create new things. It gives them a certain level of satisfaction so it makes for a good environment,” said Dr. Jeffrey.
The future is bright for PowerFilm. The company stands to change not only the way in which personal electronic products are powered, but also the way in which alternative power sources are viewed. It is introducing a viable, cost-effective, sustainable and high-performance integrated solar charging solution. As Dr. Jeffrey concluded, “We may not be the whole solution, but we plan on being a part of it.”
Check out PowerFilm on “How It’s Made”, have a gander at www.powerfilmsolar.com, or visit the company on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Be sure to watch for the company’s upcoming crowdfunding campaign for the largest version of the Lightsaver Line, the LightSaver Max.