Start-up AccuStrata wins DOE SBIR grant, develops real-time thin-film PV production monitoring tool

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AccuStrata, based in the University of Maryland’s Technology Advancement Program incubator, just won a $150,000, phase-one Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research grant, its third in six months.

The company will use the grant to refine its field-tested, patent-protected system for real-time monitoring of the effectiveness of thin-film solar panel production, enabling manufacturers to make on-the-fly changes and ensure panels’ efficiency.

“Manufacturers have no way of knowing how the films are growing inside their deposition chambers, at least until the entire film is deposited,” says George Atanasoff, president of AccuStrata. “We are giving the manufacturer the ability to know, in real time, what the quality of the film is as it is deposited and how this will affect the final panel quality.”

The prototype system consists of patented miniature fiber optic sensors installed at specific locations in existing equipment without disrupting the manufacturing process, along with external hardware and software. The tool monitors the spectral reflectance and light scattering of films as they are deposited and calculates film properties and their uniformity over the area of the panel.

The company says it installed a prototype in the live production environment of a large solar panel manufacturer during the summer, and that another installation has just gotten under way.

The latest DOE grant supports the development of AccuStrata’s Thin Film Auto Pilot, which will automate the measurements and make corrections during the thin-film solar panel manufacturing process.

“As of today, a percent increase in efficiency at a constant price per watt translates into a percent increase in revenue for manufacturers,” notes COO Oscar von Bredow. “If our system is able to increase the panel efficiency by only 12-15%, as expected, and was adopted by only 25% of the $35 billion thin-film solar manufacturing market, it would save over $1 billion by 2013.”

The company–which has six employees–has acquired more than $1 million in funding from founders, angel investors, and grants. In June, AccuStrata received a National Science Foundation phase-one SBIR grant for $100,000 and won another DOE supply chain award for $150,000 in August. The company also received funding from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. through the Maryland Technology Transfer Fund.

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