Iowa professor says his new solar technology is a winner

BOISE, IDAHO - Vikram Dalal has a new solar technology and Micron has low-cost processing know-how — and Dalal wants to help Micron Technology to put the two together to make the Boise company a leader in the emerging solar panel industry.

Dalal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University and director of the university's Microelectronics Research Center, has been getting support for his work on thin film silicon-based photovoltaic technology from Micron for several years. He says it has paid off with a new kind of silicon technology.

"We believe we can offer them a technology that can make them a major solar energy company in the world," Dalal said in a telephone interview.

He's been following Micron's efforts to get money to refurbish its fabrication plants in Boise and Nampa for either solar panels or light emitting diodes — LEDs — for high-efficiency lighting. Idaho has allocated $5 million of stimulus dollars toward the effort.

Dalal would prefer to lure Micron to build a solar-panel manufacturing plant in Iowa.

But he is convinced his technology fits Micron's processing expertise and could be built anywhere.

"We have been talking back and forth," Dalal said. "They can very easily transfer our technology to their production."

All Micron needs, he said, is investors. If they can't get them in Idaho he offered to go directly to the Iowa governor to help get state and federal funds. The state also has venture capitalists interested in solar technology.

"This is going to be a hundred-billion-dollar-a year-business," Dalal said. "Any state that does not want to invest in it is nuts."

Dalal was chosen for one of the first Micron Faculty Excellence Awards and received $300,000 from the Micron Foundation in 2003.

He and his graduate students have been studying how to characterize and optimize new silicon alloys that can be used in the photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity — next-generation solar panels. He also has studied new solar cell structures that optimize the performance of the new materials.

Micron officials have said market forces compelled them to end commercial production of NAND flash memory at their outmoded Federal Way factory. DRAM, dynamic random-access memory used in personal computers, is Micron's main product. Another 2,000 people will lose their jobs as a result of that cut by the end of the summer, in addition to the 1,500 the company cut in October.

So the company asked the state for stimulus funds to convert the Federal Way plant and perhaps the old MPC plant in Nampa for production of solar panels or LEDs, which use far less energy and can last many times longer than traditional electric lights.

"With the capital to invest in these new operations, Micron could establish Idaho as a world leader in the development and manufacturing of solar modules and/or LED lighting," Mark Durcan, Micron's chief operating officer said in March in a letter accompanying its funding request.

Micron has not talked publicly about the proposal since March. It has not said whether it will move forward with LED technology or solar or both.

"I know nothing about the strategic deliberations," Dalal said.


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