Drawing on innovations developed by a University of California at Merced professor to fabricate tiny features on to plastic chips, the founders of Shrink Nanotechnologies started the company as a FIGA business -- a for-profit business that brings together finance, industry, government and academia.
Carlsbad-based Shrink utilizes 11 patent pending technologies based on Michelle Khine’s research, to develop technologies for three main vertical markets including solar energy, medical and diagnostic sensors and research tools.
It has developed a shrinkable plastic film which can be used to build solar photovoltaic (PV) cells -- but the technology differs from the standard PV cells in that it uses solar concentrators to convert sunlight into light of a different color, which then falls on a traditional PV solar cell and enhances its efficiency.
“It is like straining the sunlight into colors that will enhance the efficiency of the silicon,” said Sayantani Ghosh, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Merced’s School of Natural Sciences who heads Shrink’s renewable energy team.
Ghosh and her colleague Roland Winston were recently tapped to develop the OptiSol solar concentrator technology and to create a business plan to commercialize it.
The disruptive, nanotechnology-based plastic solar concentrator and film is the first of its kind in the PV industry, according to the company. Traditional silicon solar cells only absorb a small fraction of the total solar radiation potential, with a majority of it either getting reflected or converted into thermal heat energy.
Optisol can be incorporated into residential and commercial construction materials, such as roofing, siding and windows, to tap sunlight and convert it into energy without losing too much of it in the form of heat or reflection. It does this by focusing and tuning the solar radiation for optimal silicon absorption.
Currently, glass is the material used for state-of-the-art laboratory solar concentrators. Shrink’s Optisol is made from wrinkled, roll-able plastic substrates that are less expensive than glass and trap light instead of reflecting it like glass.
“Think about a window. Instead of glass, the surface of the pane would be a very thin solar concentrator between two layers of glass. The light of day will hit that concentrator. By using crystalline silicon around the edges of the pane, that silicon would absorb the photons coming off the quantum dots in the film. This will be absorbed into the system and ultimately be turned into electricity that can be used,” said Mark Baum, Shrink’s CEO.
This technology can also be applied to home siding and roof shingles. According to Baum, it’s about functionalizing the surfaces of the buildings that people live and work in. Another application that the company foresees is for soldiers, who can re-power communications equipment in the field, using wearable solar designs.
Shrink is working on a final prototype for an Optisol solar window with its working groups at UC Irvine and UC Merced. The company has so far developed three iterations of Optisol, increasing the efficiency achieved with each version. The development team expects to have a scalable, optimized version ready for certification by spring of next year.
Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance business writer.