Lexington’s 1366 Technologies opens solar wafer plant

A solar technology firm on Wednesday opened a 42,000-square-foot plant in Bedford that will be the proving ground for a one-step manufacturing process that significantly cuts the cost of the silicon wafers used in solar panels.

The $6 million plant is the first step in an investor- and government-financed growth plan for 1366 Technologies that, if successful, could make the company a major player in a fiercely competitive solar industry that has already sunk several promising firms such as Evergreen Solar of Marlborough and Solyndra LLC of Fremont, Calif.

Despite competition, particularly from China, 1366 Technologies says it has developed a highly efficient process that takes about 20 seconds to make a silicon wafer used in solar panels. The process uses about half the silicon of traditional wafer-maker while cutting plant, equipment, and labor costs by about one-third, according to Emanuel “Ely” Sachs, the company’s chief technical officer.

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Most manufacturers need four steps to make a wafer, but 1366 Technologies does it one by shaping the components individually from molten silicon and setting the thin sheets inside a furnace.

The new pilot plant, which will ramp up production over the next few months, will test the process. Sachs and 1366 chief executive Frank van Mierlo said they are focused on proving that their company’s technology has staying power and can help US solar manufacturers stay profitable despite prices that have dropped four-fold in the last few years driven by low-cost solar operations in China.

“In my mind, the solar industry is competitive precisely because it’s a promising industry,” van Mierlo said. “We’re in the business of building a large company here.”

To succeed, van Mierlo said, he and Sachs will use the same strategy they’ve been employing for years: Be innovative, but frugal.

In that vein, 1366 built its Bedford plant, which will be capable of making roughly 6 million wafers a year, using money raised from investors like North Bridge Venture Partners, a Waltham venture capital firm. The plant is expected to employ 100; currently, 1366 has a staff of about 45.

Once the company has refined its manufacturing process, van Mierlo says it will tap the first half of $150 million loan it received in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a larger plant—likely in 2015.

Carmichael Roberts, of Northbridge Venture Partners, said 1366’s technology first sold him on investing in the company. But it has been Sach’s and van Mierlo’s measured approach to growing business—particularly as other firms have floundered—that has kept him believing the company will be a success.

“When we build something, it’s going to work,” Roberts said.

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