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Companies promoting solar power and other alternative-energy concepts are rapidly attracting venture funding, research grants and, just as important, the interest of many of the tech industry’s deep thinkers and influential figures.
“We have a huge energy issue in this century, and it will not be solved by policy. The only real solution is technology,” said Jim Plummer, dean of Stanford University’s School of Engineering. “The alternative is to shut down our economy.”
Lowell, Mass.-based Konarka Technologies, for instance, has raised $32 million from, among others, ChevronTexaco, utility company Electricite de France and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Konarka, which counts Nobel Prize winner Alan Heeger as a founder, says it will deliver solar cells made of thin layers of plastic to its customers–large manufacturers–by the end of the year.
In Silicon Valley, Nanosys of Palo Alto is working with Matsushita on sprayable solar coatings for roofs. Meanwhile, Nanostellar, which was founded by William Miller, CEO emeritus of SRI International, hopes to produce cleaner, cheaper catalytic converters. Other companies with alternative-energy ideas include Ocean Power Deliver (wave power); Clarke Energy (natural gas from landfills); and Bowman Power (microturbines).
Additionally, fuel cell and battery companies such as MTI MicroFuel Cells, PolyFuel and Solicore are finding markets for their products.
One of the alternative-energy areas drawing the most interest is a technology known as thin-film solar cells.
Traditional solar cells–the hardware used for solar energy in decades past–are rigid silicon chips that must be built in expensive fabrication facilities and eventually get installed in somewhat ungainly roof racks. With thin films, manufacturers use ink-jet nozzles to spray photovoltaic materials onto sheets of plastic or roof tiles in precise patterns. Not only does this cut costs, but the electricity-generating materials are unobtrusive as well.