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Published: Sunday, 3/1/2009

Firms build on gains in thin-film methods


BRIAN TELL and his business partners believe they have a good idea for making electricity from sunlight on canopies that protect parking lots in the Southwest from the blazing sun.

And when their Seneca County firm, ShadePlex LLC, went looking for a place to establish permanent roots, the founders chose Toledo.

We knew we wanted to be in the Toledo area because of what is going on in thin-film solar, Mr. Tell said, referring to the region s reputation as a technology center in advanced methods for manufacturing low-cost solar panels.

The groundwork for that development was laid in the 1980s with the research of glass industry pioneer and industrialist Harold McMaster, founder of the firm that became First Solar Inc.

The area s reputation was buttressed by subsequent solar energy research at the University of Toledo and the presence here of First Solar, now an industry giant; Europe s Q-Cells AG, and promising local start-up Xunlight Corp.

More quietly, a growing roster of researchers and entrepreneurs involved in alternative-energy is setting up shop locally.

From left, plant manager Drew Johnson, engineer Noureen Faizee, and project manager Roger Jorgenson at Red Lion s biofuel test plant on the University of  Toledo s Health Science Campus. From left, plant manager Drew Johnson, engineer Noureen Faizee, and project manager Roger Jorgenson at Red Lion s biofuel test plant on the University of Toledo s Health Science Campus.

Toledo s nonprofit Regional Growth Partnership has provided financing to at least seven such firms through its $23 million venture capital arm, Rocket Ventures, established with state grants and private donations. Many of the start-ups are locating at UT s Center for Photovoltaics Innovation & Commercialization at Dorr Street and Westwood Avenue.

In many cases, the Rocket Venture investments have been small: typically $50,000.

But recipients say the cash has been invaluable because firms still in the research stage have difficultly obtaining conventional financing. That is especially so in the current climate of restricted bank lending.

Peter Gerhardinger wants to do windows glass solar panels, actually. He and others at Innovative Thin Films LLC, Toledo, are focused on a problem seldom considered in the world s rush to erect fields of glass panels to capture sunlight for electricity production.

Glass gets dirty. Grime can reduce electricity-producing effi-ciency by up to 40 percent, said Mr. Gerhardinger, managing mem-ber of the firm s parent company. Researchers at Innovative Thin Films have developed a coating process that reduces the need to clean the panels.

The firm will soon begin testing the coating at a solar installation on the roof of the Toledo Museum of Art. Conditions are ideal, because the building is feet from I-75 and its thousands of diesel-exhaust-belching trucks.

A small test is under way at the 180th Fighter Wing National Guard base at Toledo Express Airport.

The firm has an impressive pedigree: It was founded in 2002 by Dean Gioloando, a UT chemistry professor, and Alan McMaster, son of Harold McMaster.

The company s business plan calls for licensing the process to manufacturers of glass panels and solar panels. The process won t add much to the cost of each panel, Mr. Gerhardinger said, but could ultimately bring $10 million to $20 million annually into the firm.

And Innovative Thin Films doesn t intend to stop there. It plans to develop other coatings.

A sister firm is working to market an improved solar inverter, which allows electricity produced from solar panels to be fed into the nation s electricity grid.

At ShadePlex, co-founder Brian Tell hopes to have a prototype this year. The firm s concept centers on specialized fabric material that would be used to mount solar panels on parking canopies.

Obviously, the idea wouldn t work for heavy glass panels that currently dominate the market. But Mr. Tell and many others believe that future panels will be made of lightweight materials produced by the roll.

Parking canopies, which are found in universities, office parks, and shopping centers in places like Arizona, provide an ideal application. The electricity could either be fed into the electricity grid or if electric vehicles became more popular used to provide power for charging stations.

Alternative-energy start-ups locally go beyond solar power, however.

As Russia took a tougher stance with former satellite countries over natural gas prices this winter, Red Lion BioEnergy LLC began to get inquiries about its process for converting sawdust, corn stalks, and other organic waste into fuel gas.

The firm, the brainchild of two executives of Midwest Terminals of Toledo Inc., has a test plant at UT s Health Science Campus, where testing began in May. We re continuing to improve what we have and talking to potential customers, said Fred Deichert, chief executive officer of Red Lion and finance chief of Midwest Terminals.

The other Midwest executive is Alex Johnson, president.

There are plans to use part of the $50,000 growth partnership grant to build a second unit, which, like the first, would be portable. The growth partnership has advised Red Lion to use the rest of the grant for patent protection.

A key selling point of the system, Mr. Deichert said, is that it is environmentally friendly because combustion is achieved without fire.

The process has won recognition from the Renewable Energy Institute International, which voted it best in class in 2006.

The cost for a full-scale plant would be more than $15 million, Mr. Deichert acknowledged. Although the business plan is still fluid, current expectations are that Red Lion would build plants, then sell energy.

Most of the funds for Red Lion have come from Midwest Terminals, which has invested $8 million. Red Lion shares eight employees with Midwest.

Another local firm, SuGanit Systems Inc., Toledo, is attempting to commercialize an improved process for producing the gasoline alternative ethanol from scrap wood, corn stalks, and other agricultural waste.

Currently, most ethanol is produced from corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make food for humans and animals.

But those methods have been criticized as helping to drive up food prices, said Praveen Paripati, SuGanit president.

Many companies are involved in similar research.

But in the next few months, the firm hopes to move from production of small quantities of ethanol to multiple gallons.

SuGanit has progressed to the point that Mr. Paripati is in negotiations for a possible plant site in the Toledo area.

He is an entrepreneur and electrical engineer in Reston, Va., who is responsible for several software innovations.

After becoming interested in alternative energy, he learned about the ethanol work of Sasidhar Varanasi, a chemical engineering professor at UT. SuGanit is based on Mr. Varanasi s work.

Besides a Regional Growth Partnership grant, the firm, working with UT, has received nearly $2 million from the state of Ohio and U.S. Department of Energy.

The Growth Partnership expects to announce grants to three or four more alternative-energy start-ups in the coming months, said Greg Knudson, vice president.

We re seeing more and more inquiries coming in from all over the country, and even some international calls coming in, he said. They have been attracted by the Toledo area s reputation for research in inexpensive solar panel production technology and manufacturing know-how.

In recent months, early stage financing like that available at the growth partnership has become more important.

The banks are becoming even more difficult, Mr. Knudson said.

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