By Michael J Coren
Solar is the ultimate portable power source. But most solar panels are utility-scale behemoths designed for rooftops and giant desert power plants. Cheap, ubiquitous panels we can slap on a wall to power a small appliance, are still a niche product for off-the-grid and renewable energy enthusiasts. But perhaps not for long.
Microsolar--small, radically affordable panels that can be installed anywhere--is the dream of two intrepid inventors, Shawn Frayne and Alex Hornstein, who are determined to turn solar manufacturing into a DIY affair. Their prototype device, the Solar Pocket Factory, fits in a suitcase and cranks out a small panel every 15 seconds. Composed of a metal frame, a CNC laser scorer, and few other machines, the factory turns raw silicon cells and laminate glass into simple cells that may usher in a new generation of distributed solar manufacturing.
"We want to try something a little new and a little crazy," writes the team on the website of their successful (and growing) Kickstarter campaign."We want to fund a new clean-tech invention with crowd support, and in return, bring our backers along with us, in a front-row seat as we work to change the world of microsolar."
Their two journeyed across the developing world to understand how microsolar panels are made. What they found were not the high-tech factories that supply commercial, utility-grade panels, today's "sweet spot" of the solar cell market. Instead, microsolar devices tended to be relatively expensive and shoddily built, relying on hand assembly and cheap materials. The devices tend to fall apart after two years, despite using silicon solar cells that last for decades themselves. One-sixth of the cells--many built in China, India and Bangladesh--are wasted due to poor construction.
Frayne and Hornstein figure their Solar Pocket Factory will cut manufacturing costs in these microsolar workshops by 30%, while churning out a product that lasts five times longer. Next, they will need to find a market for the kit in the developing world, as well as reliable sources of raw materials, to avoid the pitfalls of other well-intentioned (and beautifully designed) development projects that have languished after outside funding was withdrawn. The Solar Pocket Factory will also have economic hurdles to clear once they've perfected their technology. But so far they say they're ahead of the competition: their panels operate at $1 per watt compared to the $1.50 to $1.75 per watt that's currently on the market.
"We're trying to do something pretty ambitious: disrupt the billion dollar microsolar industry from a couple of tiny workshops," write Frayne and Hornstein. "It's not going to be easy."
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.