A local solar energy startup company based at the TechPort incubator in California has licensed the U.S. Navy’s patented solar cell technology to supply an expanding market for commercial solar panel installations and unmanned aerial vehicles, based on work and research with St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

SolarCube and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory signed the license agreement in June 2018 for the lab’s patented “spray deposition method for inorganic nanocrystal solar cells” technology.

Last month, the company won a competitive $100,000 technology product development grant through the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program. The funding will directly support the research and development work led by Troy Townsend, the technology’s principal inventor, who is assistant professor of chemistry at St. Mary’s College.

The solar manufacturing technique uses nanomaterials to allow photovoltaic solar modules to be manufactured using an affordable, ink jet- like printing process, said Jeff Croisetiere, chief operations officer at SolarCube.

“There’s a substantial weight saving, which is a key advantage for large roof structures that have concerns with the weight per square foot,” Croisetiere said. “Plus, they work better than traditional panels on ballasted roofs.”

Townsend developed the base technology at the naval research laboratory in 2014, and has proven the process with a working nanocrystal prototype. He is on the company’s advisory board.

“Of all the renewable energy options, solar is the only one with enough potential to exceed even our future global power demand,” Townsend said. “Solar power is a really nice financial benefit for homeowners. But not for everyone else. In order to make it more accessible, we need to drive the price way down and seamlessly integrate it into our everyday life.”

TechLink, the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary, assisted SolarCube with development of the required commercialization plan and patent license application.

The new solar cells are flexible and can be rolled for efficient shipping, but they also absorb a frequency of light different from standard panels, which means they can improve the energy production of existing solar farms when installed on top of the existing panels.

The licensing deal comes as solar energy is expanding into American middle-class homes. Demand is surging as federal tax credits begin to sunset in 2020. Worst-to-best projections of new installations range from 900,000 to 3.8 million homes by 2020.

SolarCube also intends to apply the technology to building-integrated photovoltaics, such as solar cells that are also the roof tiles, or windows glazed with semi-transparent solar cells.

Townsend’s work on printed electronics involves undergraduate research at St. Mary’s College. Student Bradley Moore, who works on printing the nanocrystal inks said, “If we do the layers correctly, it will make a solar panel that would be 40 times thinner than a human hair.”

Moore injects inks made of semiconducting and metallic nanocrystals into cartridges to print out 2D patterns onto arbitrary substrates to build electronics.

Moore works with fellow student Megan Waters, who is synthesizing the inks using air-free conditions. Waters, who has been synthesizing silver nanowires said, “Trying to figure out just the right concentrations and times of injection were definitely the most challenging and interesting parts of the synthesis.”

Townsend plans to print a prototype solar module using the support of the MIPS award and work with SolarCube LLC on ways to adapt the lab-scale process into industrial-scale printing-press manufacturing.

“Just like the printing press revolutionized the written word, rapid roll-to-roll printing of electronics is the next step,” he said.

The U.S. military sees solar energy as a reliable power source for its bases at home and missions abroad. The commercialization of the military’s solar technology directly benefits the warfighter.

The startup company is working with the TechPort business incubator to develop solar cells for use on autonomous aerial vehicles to increase their flight time and preparing its U.S. manufacturing facility.

“This technology widens the market for photovoltaics,” Croisetiere said. “And our printing process gives us a clear market advantage.”

MIPS, a program of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute in the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, supports research projects to help Maryland companies develop technology-based products. MIPS funds are matched by participating companies to pay for the university research.

Solar Cube’s MIPS project is also supported by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Innovative Technology Fund, a partnership among DNR, the University of Maryland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with the goal of accelerating Chesapeake Bay restoration through the development of new technologies. DNR provided funding to MIPS for the project.

Troy Carter, a staff writer for TechLink, contributed to this report