10/24/2011 12:11 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Silicon Technology May Help Solar Energy

By Larry Greenemeier
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As a professor at M.I.T., Ely Sachs was a strong supporter of alternative energy research. How strong? Earlier this month, he gave up his tenured faculty position after 25 years. His new company, 1366 Technologies, promises to drive down the cost of solar energy over the next 15 years until it is competitive with coal.

The company specializes in making silicon crystal wafers to be used in photovoltaic cells. Speaking at the recent Technology Review Emtech conference, Sachs says he can lower costs using a new manufacturing process called "direct wafer." Normally silicon wafers are cut from a larger piece of silicon. This wastes about half of the wafer material. Direct wafer makes individual wafers straight from molten silicon—no cutting required.

1366's next move is to build a small manufacturing facility in Massachusetts. The Department of Energy is buying into Sachs's vision—they've offered him a $150-million loan to continue his work in Massachusetts and to build a second facility elsewhere, as long as it's in the U.S. So he can continue to not burn the midnight oil.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]