Tiny solar cells woven into a flexible, lightweight mesh could soon be powering everything from spacecraft and drones to buildings, devices and remote locations.
The textile-like photovoltaic lace, created by Albuquerque startup mPower Technology, is nearing market, thanks to a $2.5 million venture investment in October, and a $1.1 million small business research grant that the U.S. Army approved in December.
The private funding will boost company efforts to enter the aerospace industry, where its photovoltaics could offer a low-cost, robust alternative to the bulky, expensive solar panels used today on satellites and other space vehicles, said mPower President and CEO Kevin Hell. And the Army grant, awarded by the Combat Capabilities Development Command Center, will allow mPower to further develop and test its solar modules for portable power in remote locations, potentially opening military markets for the technology and commercial sales for outdoor applications.
The micro solar cells that the company weaves into flexible solar arrays were originally developed by Sandia National Laboratories’ Materials, Devices and Energy Technologies group using microdesign and microfabrication techniques. mPower took the cells, which are thinner than a human hair, and integrated them into lightweight, bendable sheets that it calls DragonSCALES.
The interconnected cells are made of highly efficient silicon that can be meshed into any shape or form, providing unprecedented adaptability for a wide variety of applications. They’re particularly well-suited for aerospace, where they could replace rigid, glass-enclosed solar arrays that often include expensive Gallium Arsenide ingredients.
DragonSCALES offer reduced weight and volume while also providing resilience and extreme reliability, dramatically lowering costs, Hell said. In addition, they can be mass manufactured with standard semiconductor and solar-cell microfabrication tools and technologies, allowing the company to easily adapt and scale up production as needed.
“Gallium arsenide-based cells are too expensive, and the supply is constrained, with only three major manufacturers in the world,” Hell told the Journal. “Ours are cost-efficient and flexible to fit any form factor needed on space vehicles, taking up much less space. They can fold up tightly, offering low volume and much lighter weight because they don’t need the glass enclosures.”
They’re also more robust than traditional space arrays, Hell said.
“It’s an interconnected mesh of cells, so if one point is damaged, say, by a meteorite or a shadow, the rest of the solar panel still functions, making them very resilient in extreme space conditions,” Hell said. “With most solar panels, if you knock out one point, the full string of solar cells goes out.”
Given those competitive advantages, mPower is focusing first on the booming space industry, especially the growing market for small, low earth orbit satellites.
“There are big opportunities there for us with constellations of hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of small sats being prepared for launch,” Hell said. “We’re getting tremendous interest in that market. We’re in the process of testing and evaluating our technology with major aerospace companies.”
Those opportunities were particularly attractive to the angel and institutional investors who contributed to the company’s Series A round of investment in October. That includes participation by Santa Fe-based Sun Mountain Capital.
“Given all that’s happening with small satellites, mPower’s technology offers real advantages,” said Sun Mountain partner Lee Rand. “It’s a long procurement cycle that begins with design work to match the solar technology with targeted satellites, so it could be a number of years before mPower’s technology is flying in space. But once they enter into satellite design contracts and start generating revenue, they’ll grow from there.”
The extensive work done by Sandia to develop the foundational technology will help attract industry interest, Rand added.
“It’s incredible technology with a lot of investment from the lab,” Rand said. “It’s very mature technology, which is what attracted us as investors.”
The Army grant will also help mPower build terrestrial markets, said Chief Technology Officer Murat Okandan, a former Sandia electrical engineer who founded mPower in 2015 after working with the lab team that created the original micro cell technology.
“Given the benefits of our technology, it’s a good fit for the portable power market,” Okandan said. “Under the (Army) grant, we’ll build early prototypes and then test and prove them to get to the point where we can scale up to a finished product for sale. It’s a dual-market approach that includes Department of Defense applications for remote power that’s easily transportable, and then commercial use for things like outdoors stuff or on-site power in agriculture or mining operations.”
Other eventual applications could include rooftop solar and powering devices and sensors.
“It’s perfect for harvesting ambient energy,” Okandan said. “It could be used for sensors that need a curved form or other applications where you need to wrap it around something.”
The company is based at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque with offices as well in San Diego, which is a major hub for the aerospace industry. It currently has 12 full-time and contract employees.