The Lorry Lokey Laboratories, which house a photovoltaic solar lab, are hidden away on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
EUGENE — The Lorry Lokey Laboratories, which house a photovoltaic solar lab, are hidden away on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
They're literally underground, beneath an open space among the science buildings along East 13th Avenue. But that hasn't stopped Oregon high-tech companies from knocking on the lab's door. And when they do, the door swings wide open.
The SuNRISE photovoltaic, or PV, lab contains $1 million of state-of-the-art equipment to analyze solar cells. It was conceived as an "open lab," available to researchers from other universities, as well as to technology companies on a "fee-for-use" basis.
SuNRISE is short for Support Network for Research and Innovation in Solar Energy. The lab's mission is "to advance the science and technology of photovoltaics," said Mark Lonergan, UO chemistry professor and the PV lab's co-director.
He describes the lab as a "high-tech extension service."
"Like agricultural extension services help people grow a better tomato, we want to help companies grow a better PV," Lonergan said.
Interest is growing in solar as a renewable energy source and as a potential economic engine for Oregon, and the PV lab fits in with those trends. At least half a dozen companies are working with the lab, from start-ups, such as Grape Solar in Eugene, to giant multinationals, such as Sony, which maintains its only basic research lab in the United States at the Lorry Lokey Labs.
These partnerships between academia and industry are part of a broader initiative by the Oregon Innovation Council, a private-public statewide advisory council, to help spur economic development by combining the strengths of the state's four research universities (UO, Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology), their students and Oregon technology companies.
Their goals are many:
Organize university researchers throughout the state into research centers to foster innovation and get a better crack at federal research dollars.
Speed up commercialization of research discoveries.
Encourage start-ups and attract technology companies to Oregon.
Provide hands-on internships and prospective employment to students, as well as a trained work force for Oregon's growing green work force. Since 1998, 300 students have completed graduate internships in materials science — the majority of them in photovoltaics and semiconductors — and 90 percent of them received offers of employment after their internship, said Chris Larson, director of graduate internship programs.
Grape Solar, a one-year-old Eugene provider of solar energy systems, including panels, inverters and racking systems, routinely uses the PV lab for independent, third-party testing of the panels it imports from China, president Ocean Yuan said.
"They can use extremely expensive and high-tech equipment to look at samples of solar cells and analyze why the solar cells are, say, at an 18 percent efficiency rate, or why it's too low or too high," he said. "They can analyze that at the 'nano' level, using microscopes to identify the causes of it, and then make recommendations to manufacturers and say 'from our lab testing of the solar cell, here is the characteristic analysis report of the solar cell, and here's what we think are the causes of the high or low efficiency of the solar cell.'"
Yuan said he's aware of three U.S. universities with labs that do that type of analysis: Oregon, Georgia Tech and Berkeley.
Just two years old, the Oregon lab "was built with state-of-the-art equipment that is rarely found in the U.S.," he said. "It's cutting edge."
"If I didn't have the Oregon lab, I would have to send (the work) to Georgia Tech in Atlanta." Yuan said.
Yuan, who is eager to see a manufacturer start producing solar cells in Eugene, said the PV lab at the UO also is a "very strong selling point" to show investors that "Eugene is an ideal place for solar manufacturing."
Several solar manufacturers with facilities in the Portland area also have worked with the PV lab in Eugene.
SolarWorld, which operates a solar cell manufacturing plant in Hillsboro — the largest such facility in North America — has used the lab several times in the past year to analyze its products, as well as those under development, company spokesman Ben Santarris said in an e-mail.
"Our activities have ranged from studying how trace impurities influence solar photovoltaic cell performance to how optical coatings can enhance the spectral sensitivity of our solar modules," he said.
The research at the Oregon lab is one piece of the company's overall R&D effort, Santarris said.
The company has a robust centralized R&D operation at its largest manufacturing campus in Freiberg, Germany, as well as an R&D operation in Hillsboro, he said.
SolarWorld's R&D unit in Hillsboro "values its access to the PV lab and looks forward to partnering with UO investigators into the future and to assisting in building the labs' capabilities through shared interests," he said.
Other companies that have used the lab include solar cell manufacturer SpectraWatt, which spun out of Intel Corp. in Oregon two years ago and recently opened a manufacturing plant in New York, and Hewlett-Packard, which has a campus in Corvallis.
Hewlett-Packard manager Angus Wu recently stopped by the PV lab to take measurements of an experimental solar cell using special equipment that mimics the solar spectrum.
Hewlett-Packard is working with multiple companies and the university to develop a high efficiency solar cell, Wu said. The target is 40 percent efficiency in converting optical power into electrical power, up from the industry standard of about 20 percent, he said.
Boosting solar cell efficiency, which can reduce the size and cost of solar installations — and increase a manufacturer's competitiveness — is an objective of many industry researchers.
Voxtel, a Beaverton company, whose photo-voltaic research team is based at the Lokey Laboratories, recently published research in Science magazine showing the first practical demonstration of an advanced solar collection technique. The research points to the possibility of highly efficient, inexpensive photovoltaics that could be printed directly onto surfaces.
"The opportunities available to a small company like us are tremendous," said David Schut, director of Voxtel's research team in Eugene. "Not only are these facilities useful to us ... but we have access to faculty."