GE Backs Stealth Solar Startup Alta Devices

Stealthy thin-film solar company Alta Devices has added on yet another high-profile investor: GE. A GE spokesperson confirmed with me this morning that GE Energy Financial Services has made an investment in the 3-year-old Santa Clara, Calif-based Alta Devices, but the spokesperson wouldn’t disclose the size of the investment. Alta has also received investment from Kleiner Perkins, Technology Partners, Crosslink Capital and grant money from the Department of Energy.

While Alta has been quiet about its technology, according to a job posting back in July, Alta Devices is aiming for nothing short of “the world’s highest-efficiency/lowest-cost solar modules.” Solar cells (and processes to make them) under development at the company are said to deliver up to 30 percent efficiency at a module cost of less than 50 cents per watt, thanks to “high efficiency compound semiconductor materials and proprietary manufacturing equipment to grow thin-film solar cells.”

According to a patent application, Alta has developed a photovoltaic device that has a “significantly thin absorber layer:” less than 500 nanometers (half a micrometer) thick, compared to several micrometers for conventional solar cells. The thin layer can improve efficiency and flexibility, and according to the filing, “As long as the absorber layer is able to trap light, the efficiency increases as the thickness of the absorber layer is decreased.”

Along with fund-raising comes growth. Alta has clearly begun to expand its staff and has been looking to rack up a pile of patent applications. According to the July job posting, Alta had 55 employees and had filed for 35 patents, up from just 24 employees and 23 patent filings noted in a similar posting last year. The company was founded by Harry Atwater of Caltech and Eli Yablonovitch of UC Berkeley, is headed up by Chris Norris (a longtime Cypress Semiconductor executive), and now includes a group of scientists and engineers who spent time at Lucent Technologies, Applied Materials, Bell Labs, Intel, and other semiconductor giants.

The DOE awarded Alta $3 million under its Photovoltaic Technology Incubator Program, and according to the DOE’s description of Alta’s project, Alta is looking to enter the market with its solar technology in 2011. The DOE grant is meant to help a company transition prototype and pre-commercial photovoltaic technologies into pilot and full-scale manufacturing.

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