ECE grad student Yi Chen moves from research to business

ECE News

Heather Punke, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • ECE graduate student Yi Chen is developing his research technology into a business: Effimax Solar.
  • Chen has been researching nanotexturing methods, which Effimax Solar will apply to solar panels.
  • The process will greatly increase the efficiency of the solar panels.

Effimax Solar tied for first in the V. Dale Cozad New Venture Competition. From left are Effimax Solar team members Jingrui Lu, Rui Cai, Yi Chen, and Aaron Wiener. Team member Dave Tarvin was unavailable for the photo.
Effimax Solar tied for first in the V. Dale Cozad New Venture Competition. From left are Effimax Solar team members Jingrui Lu, Rui Cai, Yi Chen, and Aaron Wiener. Team member Dave Tarvin was unavailable for the photo.

ECE graduate student Yi Chen is doing something a little different with his research technology—turning it into a business.

Chen’s technology is the basis of Effimax Solar, a company created because of Chen’s innovative nanotexturing process. Chen developed a new nanotexturing method that can be applied to solar panels. The technique uses an ion etcher to create a forest of nanostructures on a silicon surface at a microscopic level.

“The previous nanotexturing technique involved either bottom-up or top-down fabrication,” Chen said. “We have demonstrated the first simultaneous bottom-up and top-down fabrication that worked.” The simultaneous fabrication shortens the process, which currently takes nearly 100 minutes, down to three minutes.

When that technology is applied to solar panels, the improvement shows in the numbers.

“The conventional solar cell has about 30% sunlight reflected back to the air. Compared with ours, we can trap nearly 100% sunlight independent of the incident angle,” Chen said. The light essentially gets trapped by the nanostructures on the solar panel. The higher efficiency helps to reduce the price of solar energy.

“Our ultimate goal is to deliver solar power at the cost of [conventional] electricity,” Chen said.

Chen and Aaron Wiener, a University of Illinois alumnus who helped create Effimax Solar, decided to build a business around the technology because of its “commercial potential.” Effimax will take advantage of other applications of the technology, not just its photovoltaic application.

“The end game is honestly to utilize the photovoltaic applications as a jumping off point to expand the other applications of the technology,” Wiener said. The technology could be used to create things such as less expensive, better quality consumer-grade cameras and military-grade infrared cameras, because both typically use silicon, Wiener explained.

In fact, the photovoltaic application is not what Chen first had in mind for his research technology.

“We had this idea initially because we want to use this texturized silicon substrate for the bio-sensor applications,” Chen said. After discovering how well it applied to photovoltaics, they went in that direction instead.

Chen did not create this technology alone – the innovative process is based on research conducted with ECE Assistant Professor Gang Logan Liu. Chen said that Liu has been involved since the beginning and will continue to play a role in Effimax Solar and the application of the technology.

Effimax Solar has been gaining recognition recently. The company tied for first in the Cozad New Venture Competition at Illinois in April 2011. Effimax also was one of five semifinalist companies in the Renewables section of MIT’s Clean Energy Prize competition.

This summer, the company will be part of the Plug and Play Startup Camp in California, which will provide Effimax with an office space and seed money. Wiener hopes the camp will help jump-start the business.

“[Plug and Play will] help us develop a prototype, pop it into an assembly line, and get some very accurate financial and industry data once it’s actually in an assembly line,” Wiener said. They hope to make the final leap out of the lab and into the industry this summer.

Other Effimax Solar personnel are Rui Cai, an Illinois College of Business graduate student; Dave Tarvin, an Illinois State University alumnus; and Jingrui Lu, a University of North Dakota graduate student.

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