AZoCleantech speaks to Paul Warley, CEO of Ascent Solar, about the company's leading thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technology and its use in space applications.
Can you tell us briefly about your career so far and your role at Ascent Solar Technologies?
I have 30 years of experience as an executive CEO, investor, and entrepreneur in the following industries - alternative energy, financial services, healthcare, and oil & gas.
All of the companies I joined tended to be in a similar place, either in the early stages or in the development stage, and were missing some key pieces to get to the next level of growth. In these experiences, I successfully rallied the teams to adopt the right mindset and tools necessary for the new course and to execute plans that led to successful outcomes of global scale, expansion, and/or IPO.
I recently joined Ascent (Nasdaq: ASTI) as the CFO and was promoted to CEO in April 2023.
The company has gone through some difficult years, and it was my role to redirect the company. We have now repositioned ASTI in the Aerospace and Agrivoltaics segments of solar ASTI. We are now very focused on the above-mentioned industries, B2B component manufacturers, and on pursuing global solar power alternatives to rigid panels.
I am very excited to have the opportunity to lead a great team to transform ASTI.
Can you describe the science behind Ascent Solar’s leading thin film photovoltaic (PV) technology and how they differ from traditional solar structures?
Ascent’s flexible, lightweight, and resilient thin-film PV is the solar power solution for scenarios where rigid panels do not work. Ascent's product's core attributes and value start with how it is made. We are fortunate to own/have the IP related to our chemistry and manufacturing.
Ascent’s process is like semiconductor manufacturing with steps that include Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) chemical deposition, laser etching, and lamination at a commercial scale.
We start by coating a polyamide substrate thinner than human hair with molybdenum. This film is then built up with additional copper, Indium, gallium, and selenide layers to create the precise foundations for our material to react to sunlight and create electrical current. We utilize other buffer materials to establish physical and chemical interactions to create a photoactive cell. A significant change we are currently making in one of these materials is a shift from Cadmium Sulfide (CdS) to Zinc Oxy Sulfide Zn(O,S).
Once all deposition is finished and the base sell material is complete, lasers are used to cut electrical pathways to connect the individual solar cells electrically in series and to split the film into independent solar modules based on customer order requirements.
The output of the above process is a roll of Ascent thin film that is 30 microns thick and weighs 68.4 g/m² with impressive power density with our small area cells recorded at a 1900 w/kg (AM 1.0) power-to-weight ratio.
For more demanding environments, including space, we offer optional lamination steps to provide additional protection and performance of our products.
Ascent’s approach differs from traditional panel approaches. Crystalline panel construction comprises individual cells combined into a dense, processed semiconductor wafer. Then, multiple units are attached to a polyimide substrate to make the PV “blanket.” This approach to cell development and assembly is part and labor-intensive.
Ascent’s thin film uses a fraction of the semiconductor material deposited onto a polyimide substrate. It is then patterned by lasers into individual cells, resulting in low part count and weight.
How have your thin film solar products been used in space applications?
We have worked with NASA to demonstrate that Ascent’s thin film innovations are robust enough to survive the harshness of the space environment.
With our new expanded production capacity, we are flipping the script on the old space notion of exquisitely expensive hardware produced on a one-off, mission-to-mission basis.
Ascent is innovating by providing a versatile solar framework with which the broad swaths of the industry can efficiently power their missions.
Instead of requiring a bespoke solution, we are simplifying space power generation with our newly announced “Plug & Fly” Space Hardware Developer Kits, or HDKs, as we commonly refer to them, to satisfy the industry’s insatiable appetite for acronyms.
The first of our HDK products we have announced for release is our Titan module. The module is approximately 1 square foot in size, 10 grams in weight, and has a target output of 17 watts. The Titan has been specifically designed for the space environment and versatile use in many mission applications.
Like all Ascent modules, this unit can be used individually or serve as a building block for an array that is scalable to meet a specific mission’s power needs.
What rigorous testing is needed to ensure your products are safe for use in space?
Designing and manufacturing products for operation in space, whether low earth orbit (LEO), or geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO), is a challenging but ultimately rewarding undertaking. Testing is a significant part of that development process. For solar technologies, many performance thresholds must be met to be considered safe and appropriate for use in space.
All objects are subjected to intense radiation levels, extreme temperatures, vacuum, and potential debris in the space environment. Traveling to space also exposes equipment to intense vibration and extreme gravitational (G) forces.
Testing protocols for our technology are directly linked to the space environment, so we subject our products to radiation, extreme temperatures (-270 °C – 120 °C), vibration, and variable electrical loads to ensure consistent performance.
As a component provider, it is also essential that our technology is tested once integrated into a system. For this type of testing, we work with our partners and customers to complete necessary testing for performance requirements.
What are the important benefits of using solar technologies in space?
Solar has been the default power generation technology for space missions as long as humans have been putting things in space.
The problem is that these legacy solutions have remained clunky and fragile despite becoming a little more efficient each year. That might have worked well when you only had a few dozen things circling in uncrowded orbits, but space is getting exponentially more crowded at an ever-increasing rate, significantly increasing the likelihood of more collisions in orbit.
One of the key differentiators of our thin film products is that they lead in the stewardship of preserving the space environment. I am talking about Space Sustainability and surviving Orbital Debris, and Ascent’s Space HDK line of products is resilient to space debris. It does not generate more of it even if impacted.
In some configurations, you can even roll it in a retractable sun awning as an additional measure of robustness in the threat of this growing concern for space operators.
One of the primary benefits, beyond making space safer for spacecraft operators and future commercial astronauts, is that Ascent-powered solar arrays produce power so efficiently that spacecraft only require ⅕ of the mass for power generation. Remember that some spacecraft, like Europa Clipper, are flying arrays so big they are the size of a full basketball court.
To put in perspective what sort of magnitude of savings our products can pass along, each kilogram on that mission is costing over a million dollars to be launched into deep space, not to mention the extra nontrivially expensive propellant that the spacecraft is also has to drag along with it, to haul that additional mass to Jupiter.
What steps has Ascent Solar taken to establish itself as a thin film solar sector leader?
Ascent has a transformative turnaround process that aims to cement us as a key player in the global space and aerospace solar landscape.
We have taken our leadership one step further. We are building on our existing presence in outer space by launching our Space Hardware Developer Kits, which make the historically difficult and pricey process of integrating solar tech in space much simpler and cheaper.
This development is a natural next step from our ongoing working relationships with major space agencies, including JAXA and NASA, to empower others to easily build powerful, lightweight, and reliable solar arrays so that they can be more effective in their space missions.
What are some key challenges facing thin film solar technology today, and how could they be addressed?
One of the most unfortunate misconceptions about thin film that needs to be addressed is the false notion that the technology exists in competition with traditional, rigid solar panels. Thin film is a natural extension of that original technology, working to expand the addressable solar power market, not replace it.
Traditional panels are still an incredibly effective and important green technology solution; thin film is simply here to fill the gaps where rigid panels do not work.
The world around us is filled with various structures and devices of different sizes that were designed with an endless array of asymmetrical designs that cannot accommodate heavy, rectangular solar panels.
Instead of discarding all of these opportunities, we can use the attributes of flexible and lightweight thin film to develop better products and unlock new use cases for solar power.
Continued reliance on traditional panels limits the potential impact solar power can have in the fight against the climate crisis. Thin film unlocks seemingly endless potential for solar tech to be applied to industries and devices we seldom associate with solar power. It will massively expand the potential for solar across the world so that we can genuinely put a dent on fossil fuel emissions.
Where do you think the future lies in the solar technology sector in relation to its use in space?
In the space sector, everybody wants more power. Imagine a future where Gigawatts of clean energy are being produced 24/7 on orbit and made widely available around the globe.
Depending on international regulations, this could be a future of abundance that Ascent can play a key role in enabling.
Space-based power needs some advocacy for favorable regulations in the US and a commitment to being a leader in it. With super-heavy launch capabilities like SpaceX’s Starship coming online combined with humanity's ever-increasing demand for power, I can envision a near future where Ascent is enabling the category creators that will inevitably begin powering Earth from space.
Do you have any exciting company developments that you can discuss?
The operations and manufacturing team continue to improve the CIG’s product to improve efficiency to achieve 20% by the first quarter of 2024.
About Paul Warley
Prior to Ascent, Paul Warley was president of Warley & Company LLC, a strategic advisory firm from 2015 to 2022, providing executive management services, capital advisory, and M&A to middle-market companies in the service, construction, technology, oil & gas, clean energy, food, retail, and green-building sectors.
While at Warley & Company from 2018 to 2019, he was the chief executive officer and CFO of 360Imaging, a provider of products and services for implant surgery and digital dentistry.
From 2011 to 2015, Warley served clients in the alternative energy industry as a managing director and chief compliance officer with Deloitte Corporate Finance.
From 1997 to 2011, Warley was managing director and region manager for GE Capital.
From 1984 to 1997, Warley served as senior vice president with Bank of America and Bankers Trust.
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