Thanks to her groundbreaking invention, Olga Malinkiewicz, the founder and CTO at Saule Technologies is becoming a kind of celebrity in the world of science. Recently, a Japanese billionaire has placed hope and money in her technology which has the potential to push silicon panels off the market
By Alicja Ciszewska
Minerals (precisely mineral patterns) called perovskites, which occur naturally and can also be created under laboratory conditions, have been used in electronics for a few decades, but the first perovskite solar cells were made in 2009. They converted 3.8 percent of the light falling onto them into electricity. Now, the most advanced absorb around 20 percent. This conversion rate is similar to the performance of commercial silicon cells, and researchers are confident they can push it to 25 percent in the next few years. “Perovskites are very interesting materials with excellent optical properties, which can certainly be applied to produce low-cost, efficient solar cells,” Tadeusz Żdanowicz, Department of Plasma and Vacuum Technology, Faculty of Microsystem Electronics and Photonics at Wrocław University of Technology, pointed out. The technology invented by a Polish female scientist, Olga Malinkiewicz involves low temperature perovskite application onto PET foil to create a semi-transparent PV cell. The process involves digital ink-jet printing of perovskites in a vacuum-free process, than spraying perovskite precursors onto adhesive backings. This will allow the cells to be stuck onto any device that needs power.
€10 mln revolution
Olga Malinkiewicz has spent years developing her technology and naturally, wanted to commercialize it. Finding an investor for the project was the biggest challenge that lay ahead of the young scientist and her company, Saule Technologies. Piotr Krych, the firm’s CEO and Artur Kupczunas, who owns a 25 percent stake, have each been looking for investors around the globe. They were introduced to Hideo Sawada, a Japanese discount-travel pioneer, by a Pole running his business in London. Sawada invited them to Tokyo and offered to inject PLN 20 million into their company after a quick talk. Saule’s owners stressed that the Japanese investor’s offer “seemed to have potential” and guaranteed protection of the intellectual property. Both the Polish start-up and Sawada are more than satisfied with their choice. “The new technology being developed by Saule Technologies has enormous potential to revolutionize the solar power market and make it more accessible and common. Future uses for its application are almost limitless,” said Sawada at the signing event in October. Krych and Kupczunas said they wanted their investor to be inspired by their plans and they managed to find one. “The contract with Sawada will make it easier for us to get access to the Japanese and Asian markets. This cooperation confirms that we are entering the world market by taking small but bold steps,” Krych concluded.
Sawada’s investment in Saule Technologies comes on the back of a grant which the company received from Poland’s National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR), amounting to over PLN 25 million, and funding from ARP Venture (one symbolic share), a venture capital arm of state owned Grupa Kapitałowa Agencji Rozwoju Przemysłu. The minor financing that Saule was provided with by ARP will enable the company to seek support in the field of promoting the technology on the domestic market. In total, the company garnered funds valued at some €10 million, a sum that is sufficient to carry out the project which is worth approximately PLN 34 million. Currently, experts from Poland and western Europe, led by Malinkiewicz, are working on the technology in their Wrocław-based laboratory. The team has developed prototype flexible cells which are 3 percent efficient, and Malinkiewicz thinks its engineers can get to 10 percent in the next 24 months when the production process may be launched. Żdanowicz admitted that perovskites themselves
“could also be used for the preparation of cells for a thin, light, flexible substrate,” without commenting on Saule’s product. However, for now, he thinks that the road to the commercialization of such technology is “long and bumpy.”
So what exactly did Malinkiewicz do? She put perovskites and electrodes on PET foil by using special ink, produced in her laboratory. “We focused on developing the technology, which will make it easy to print our cells,” Kupczunas said, stressing that Saule was the first in the world to invent such an application. The process may seem quite simple to perform, however, as he explained, it requires extraordinary laboratory conditions to make the foil effective. Since Saule’s product is capable of producing solar electricity, it may be addressed to wide range of industries. Its owners asserted that thanks to Poland’s climate, the foil will be exposed to high temperature amplitudes as well as different weather phenomena. This, consequently, will make the product usable all over the world. The foil may be attached to roof tiles or to other building materials, thus building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are at the center of the firm’s business interests. Obviously, the technology may also be useful for charging electronic devices, cars, and so on, and most importantly, energy surpluses may be sold by a prosumer and also recycled. Ultimately, the foil is to be usable for 20 years, at the moment the firm has managed to achieve a product life-span of three years. “This is the first time in history, when the accumulated costs of electric energy production may be lower than from fossil fuels and even from silicon panels,” Kupczunas claimed and added that the time has come to develop new technologies. Saule has already been in talks with some significant domestic and international players, potential recipients of their product. “We visited an Airbus production plant based in Ottobrunn [Germany]. They are interested in cooperation with us. We have contacts with the European Space Agency and the Polish Army, among others,” Kupczunas informed. He did not want to disclose any details about the business ties with the aforementioned entities, but he stressed that his company was approached by many potential partners and Saule is looking into these offers carefully. The company is also considering cooperation with a Barcelona-based research facility which has been working on developing technology for adopting graphene into photovoltaics. “Graphene would replace the material we use to produce the electrodes applied in our photovoltaic cell. It could be quite a fine conductor” Kupczunas explained, adding that this project is a side issue and that Saule is focusing on the knowledge it has already acquired.
The competition never sleeps
Saule is not the only firm working on selling its technology using perovskites in photovoltaics. Oxford
Photovoltaics (PV), established by Oxford University, is developing and commercializing thin-film perovskite solar cells, which can be deposited directly onto silicon solar cells on glass. Żdanowicz claimed that the option to connect perovskites with traditional crystalline silicon cells which allows the combination of the different optical properties of both materials seems to be “a particularly interesting” application. The company hopes to produce panels with perovskite-based solar cells by 2017. So basically, Oxford Photovoltaics is combining silicon cells with perovskites, that is why Saule “is more innovative,” Kupczunas said proudly. “Unlike other companies, we focus on combining our inks with the foil, which is much more technically demanding, but also opens a wider range of potential applications than simple deposits on glass, not to mention the lower cost of production, assembly and transport,” he concluded. Saule’s owners admitted that it is hard to stay up to date with all the results that their potential competition achieve, because most of them are secret. On the other hand, the point that the Polish firm has already reached is the right one to pursue their goal, which is wide commercialization. “Others are also working in laboratories on the efficiency of their material, the best achieve 20 percent. We prefer to establish cooperation with industry quickly, because it only needs 10 percent efficiency, which we are capable of,” Malinkiewicz pointed out.
Saule has the undoubted potential to become a globally known Polish company, which has managed to put an idea into practice and run a promising business. At the same time, its success may pave the way for many Polish scientists who are wary about carrying out their research in our country. “Saule Technologies is just one of the examples that proves that Poland is ready to create global enterprises. I think that we have the academic background, infrastructure and industry ready to support research for inventions,” said Malinkiewicz, who chose Poland over foreign facilities to make her dreams come true.