Twin Creeks and Thin Solar

A friend of mine has been working at Twin Creeks Technologies since it was formed, and all he was able to tell me was that they were working a new angle on solar technology. So I’ve been itching to know what they were up to. For several years the Twin Creeks website was just a placeholder, devoid of meaningful information. But at the end of March this year, they finally put their cards on the table. I had expected their trick to be in the physics of the electrical generation. But instead it’s about manufacturing efficiencies, specifically, in their ability to make solar cells that are up to ten times thinner than traditional cells.

The technology is exotic, but their elevator pitch is satisfyingly straightforward. Imagine that you’re a lumberjack trying to cut thin disks of wood from the end of a log. Now let’s say you want to make a lot of very thin slices. As the slices get smaller, you will eventually be grinding up more wood with your chainsaw than you’re keeping in your finished product. How can you pop off a thin slice of wood (i.e. silicon) without throwing away a ration of sawdust?

That’s the picture. Now here’s the secret weapon (fun jargon ahead) … Proton Induced Exfoliation with the Hyperion Ion Beam. They’ve made a knife as thin as a proton, and with it they can slice the silicon neatly 20 microns at a time. Pop! Look at this page for the explanatory video, and just reflect on how insanely complex and expensive this machine must be.

Reading about this technology reminded me of Tom Murphy’s Energy Trap. The energy trap argument goes like this: It will be tempting not to invest in new energy sources as much as we should. These new technologies are expensive and risky, and old fossil power is still pretty cheap. But when old power gets expensive, we won’t have the money we need to invest in new technologies. We’ll be pedaling hard just to keep food on the table and mobs off the street. And that is the nature of a trap. You don’t realize you’re in a trap until you’re in it. And by then you’re in a trap. Or, as the addicts say, when you can stop you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t.

Which is to say, I’m really glad that there are people willing to invest the big bucks in places like Twin Creeks Technologies. And I wish them luck.