Q&A: Solensphere looks to make solar power cheaper and more reliable

Team Solensphere — Feng Shi; Adam Burwell; and Corbyn Jahn – at the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge. Photo Matt Hagen

Solensphere Renewables has developed a solar concentrator system that intensely focuses sunlight using a reflector fashioned after a telescope. Concentrating sunlight makes more efficient use of expensive solar cells. To learn more about the southern Oregon-based company I talked with founders Corbyn Jahn, COO, and Adam Burwell, CEO, both students of Renewable Energy Engineering at Oregon Tech.

How will Solensphere Renewables change the world? “We’re going to recover 72 percent of the sun’s energy in one scalable design and reduce the cost of efficient solar energy. Concentrating solar technologies are on the market today, but they’re very expensive — two to three times the price of high-end solar flat panels. Our product will compete with flat-panel prices at efficiencies three times higher, and provide thermal energy to boot.”

What’s so unusual about your concentrating solar?  ”Typical concentrators have one reflector. We’re using two reflectors in a low-cost Cassegrain concentrator. It’s a telescope‑style design using a parabolic dish that reflects sunlight up onto a smaller dish that then reflects a single beam down onto a onto a triple junction photovoltaic chip. Our two reflector dishes concentrate the sun’s power 1,000 times. With that much concentration we can generate energy in two ways. First, we produce electricity with 40 percent efficiency, as high as the most efficient units commercially available today. But that’s just the photovoltaics part. With a 1,000 times concentration there’s a lot of heat generated. So we capture that thermal energy in a liquid.”

How do you convert the heat into electricity? “We have almost limitless options in what we can do with that heat. We can store the hot liquid, then run it through a device like a Rankine cycle or Stirling engine to recoup electricity later. That way we can eliminate the intermittence of standard solar power. But the stored heat doesn’t have to be converted to electricity. We’re looking at facilities like breweries or distilleries that can use hot water and steam in their production processes, instead of consuming energy to run a boiler.”

Will Solensphere make the whole product, or will you license this technology to other companies in the solar industry? “Right now we’re relying on our manufacturing partners to build the components and SolenSphere will assemble and design the systems to fit each client’s needs.  In the future, we’re looking into a vertically integrated structure, when and if the time is right.”

Where did the inspiration for this idea come from? “The inventor is Feng Shi, our CTO and an Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Renewable Energy Engineering departments at the Oregon Tech. He has multiple patents and patent applications. He thought of the concentrator design and came to us for help launching a business.”

What is your biggest challenge as entrepreneurs? “We’re 100 percent self-funded thus far, and we’re dependent on other manufacturers for key parts of the production-ready product. Currently we need an investor to match an already committed investor for seed capital. With this money we will take our design from prototype to pilot system, which is our final step in developing the market-ready product. Other than that, being an entrepreneur is why we’re here — to take risks, challenge convention and shape the future.”

This article is one of a series by Denis Du Bois about participants in the 2012 Cleantech Open. Denis is a GeekWire contributor on energy topics, and a volunteer mentor to startups in the Cleantech Open. More profiles here