Konarka Technologies

November 19, 2001
Section: Business

UMass Lowell spinoff makes dye-sensitized technology


LOWELL --It's a sunny afternoon, and you're going for a jog in your solar-powered shirt. Don't worry about bringing batteries for your Walkman, the electricity your clothing creates will power the music in your headphones. When you get home, your windows and roof shingles will have produced and stored enough energy from the sun to power the lights without relying solely on conventional electricity.
This is what Paul Wormser, president and chief operating officer of Konarka Technologies, says is his version of "fantasy land." It is also what his company is working to turn into reality.Konarka Technologies, a startup that was spun off from the University of Massachusetts Lowell four months ago, specializes in dye-sensitized solar technology that can be integrated into materials ranging from cellular phones to sweaters.The company is first trying to tackle the portable electronics market. Unlike traditional solar panel technology, Konarka's solar power will work with flexible materials, embedded throughout a product rather than sitting in the form of panels on top."Over time we'll go from the portable electronics applications to something you can put onto your jacket," Wormser said at the company's Wannalancit Mills headquarters. "If you want to go far out, you'll see it as a window. It is absolutely mind-boggling in terms of what this can do."
Dye-sensitized solar power works by using titanium dioxide and dye, rather than the silicon used to make typical solar panels. Layers of tiny titanium dioxide particles are liquefied and applied in strips to a flexible surface such as a thin plastic film. The particles are coated with dye, which absorbs light and excites electrons in the titanium dioxide strips. Freed from the material, the electrons escape through a wire conduit, which in Konarka's case will be transparent when integrated into a product.Konarka's technology is being designed to work with fluorescent lights indoors as well as under sunshine.The company, which so far has about $1 million supporting it, is aiming to create an advanced prototype of its product by the end of next year. The technology is licensed from UMass Lowell, where it was developed by the late Sukant Tripathy and spun off as an independent venture in July. The university retains a small portion of the company's equity.
Konarka got its first round of seed financing from ZeroStage Capital, which pumped in $500,000. The startup already has a $2 million deal with U.S. Army labs in Natick.Army tents or gear capable of creating solar power would significantly improve a soldier's efficiency, Wormser said, adding that traditional fuel power used in the field is heavy, harmful to the environment and gives off heat that can be detected by the enemy. The same application could transfer to outdoor recreation, said Wormser, who dreams of campers using solar-powered tents to run lamps and stoves.
And unlike heavy solar panels, which weigh around four to six pounds per square foot, Konarka's technology could be rolled up and transported anywhere, said Wormser, adding that the product will weigh "almost nothing." Konarka also hopes to discover a major breakthrough in the cost of using solar power, though the company can't yet produce a price estimate.Wormser bases the potential cost reduction on a number of factors, including the cost of raw materials. For example, one 40-gram vile of titanium dioxide powder -- which can cover a 250-square-foot area -- costs under $1, Wormser said.
Eric Prouty, an energy technology analyst at Adams Harkness & Hill in Boston, agrees that Konarka's technology could be less expensive than other forms of solar power. But Prouty said he stresses the word "could," since there are not yet any commercial products of this type to look at.The solar industry is already a multibillion-dollar industry today, Prouty said, and the lightweight thin-film applications Konarka is developing could lead to many novel uses."They are targeting a nice large existing commercial market. There already are some large players who dominate it, but it seems like this company is trying to find their niche and leapfrog to the next generation of solar technology," he said.
Konarka's technology will be an ideal supplement to other forms of energy but won't be able to power large energy-intensive devices by itself, Prouty said."If you're thinking of putting it on a lawn mower, that's just not going to happen," he said. "To run a lawn mower, you need a panel much larger than a lawn mower."
And Wormser says he knows the technology's limitations.
For now.
"This technology will give way to things we can dream about: Solar buildings, solar windows, solar electric cars. But these are dreams, and we're going to get there by selling viable products," Wormser said.
Vanessa Hughes' email address is vhughes@lowellsun.com .

(c) 2001 The Sun (Lowell, MA). All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.