Following the recession, the outlook for solar energy is looking brighter. There is renewed investment in the solar panel production chain with China leading the charge. The situation is particularly rosy for coating technology-specialist Beneq, whose innovations are now being produced on an industrial scale.
"The future's now looking brighter than it has for a couple of years. I believe that this willingness to invest in solar energy is bringing us the growth we've craved," says Beneq co-founder and Vice President, Thin Film Equipment Tommi Vainio.
In 2011, Beneq made its biggest deal to date in China and, of last year's 18 million euro turnover, around half came from China. Tommi Vainio believes that the trend will maintain its momentum, as a number of potential Beneq customers are in Asia.
The company was founded in 2005, when it started out developing and offering the market nanotechnology-based precision coating methods and equipment and related services.
"We recognised demands that traditional coatings were not able to fulfil. We believed that through our technology we would be able to offer better electrical conductivity and extremely high transparency but at a much lower cost."
The company now employs 140 people and Beneq technology can be used to produce durable, highly conductive coatings that prevent the penetration of gases and liquids. Coatings are used in different types of solar cells and in OLED displays and lighting.
Wisdom through cooperation
The vast majority of solar cells are made from crystalline silicon. Beneq's commercialised atomic layer deposition (ALD) technology can be used in the coating of such solar cells.
"We have developed a so-called surface passivation method, by which we can improve the efficiency of crystalline silicon-based solar cells in a competitive way. Until now, it has never been expanded to a broad industrial scale," says Tommi Vainio.
Active participation in Tekes programmes has helped support the company's focused development work. Through its Functional Materials programme-related project, Beneq has developed a unique continuous ALD system. The groundwork had been done earlier through collaboration with university groups. Using the new method, thin protective coatings can be manufactured, roll-to-roll, in a cost and energy-efficient way. In addition to the breakthrough for solar cells, the method also has significant advantages for flexible electronics and OLEDs. The first industrial device has already been delivered to the Astral laboratory, led by Professor David Cameron, in Mikkeli for development and piloting for industrial applications.
Tekes has been involved in the development of ALD technology by funding Beneq's own project and a public project coordinated by Aalto University. The on-going public project involves universities and businesses from the whole solar energy value chain.
"Without these kinds of projects, it would be more difficult to get started in development work. This project enables us to work with industry experts more easily than if we were to go through direct customer contacts. This way, we also get a more objective outlook on, for example, the measurement of the efficiency of solar cells."
Tekes plays a crucial role
In addition to crystalline silicon, solar cells are made from amorphous silicon. 'Amorphous' refers to the material's physical form, in which the material's structural units do not have a set order as in the crystalline form. Using the aerosol method developed by Beneq, these cells can be coated with a transparent conductive oxide (TCO) coating. In this way, the cell's efficiency is increased and the end user received a solar cell that has greater electrical power for its surface area.
Product development of the aerosol method began with the support of Tekes in 2006. Beneq has researched the idea on a small scale and now it was time to push the innovation towards an industrial scale. Development work was first carried out in a research project under the auspices of the FinNano programme and was scaled to an industrial process through the project under the Functional Materials programme in 2011, which led to the major Chinese deal mentioned above.
"At the beginning, the Tekes funding was crucial. Thanks to the support of Tekes, we were able to set up a research environment in our facilities in Vantaa. Without that support, we'd have been dead in the water," estimates Tommi Vainio.
For the aerosol method, Beneq's first industrial partner was the world's largest glass manufacturer, Asahi. Later, Beneq started to work with Finnish glass company Glaston. The equipment developed through these collaborative partnerships is used to produce and coat protective glass covers for solar cells.
"The time when solar panels that utilise our technology can be used on Finnish roofs might not be too far away at all."
Rights in hand
Beneq designs and sells coating equipment, meaning that the company is technically part of the mechanical engineering industry. In fact, the company does not make the equipment itself, but has outsourced that part of the business to its partners. Vainio believes that Beneq's most important property is the well protected technology in the company's own hands.
"We have more than a hundred patent families, which protect our methods and applications. We live or die by our intellectual property rights."
Vainio encourages all growth companies with plans of internationalisation to pay close attention to IP issues. If a company does not have its own protected technology, it may face difficulties in carving out a niche.
"Over the past five years, we have registered patents in Russia, China and, in some cases, also in India. The Chinese are starting to respect Western rights, though they still a long way to go."
Vice President, Thin Film Equipment
Tel. +358 (0)40 570 7502
tommi.vainio (at) beneq.com