Konarka Finding New Partners for Power Plastic, But Faces Major Market Hurdles

Konarka Technologies, the Lowell, MA-based developer of flexible materials that convert light into electricity, is showing how everyday items like handbags and umbrellas can be turned into power generators. But the eight-year-old firm will need to collect a lot more juice before it can become a commercial success.

The company—which has raised $150 million from private investors—has revealed at least five new partners or customers over the past year who are integrating the firm’s so-called “Power Plastic” into such products as handbags that store solar energy to recharge electronic devices and patio umbrellas that provide electricity for laptops and the like. The latest deal was an agreement revealed last week in which Enviromena Power Solutions, of the United Arab Emirates, is evaluating the materials for use in shade structures used in deserts. And last month the firm hit the one-year anniversary of the opening of its 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in New Bedford, MA. Yet many of the products into which its solar materials are being integrated remain in development, and actual production activities haven’t gone into full swing in New Bedford.

Konarka makes photovoltaic modules from organic polymers rather than silicon or other traditional semiconductors, putting it on the cutting edge of solar cell development. Its materials are unusual in the solar business because they’re not marketed for use in standard solar panels on roofs, which typically are made from cheaper, more efficient substances, such as polycrystalline silicon. The firm’s products, however, are lightweight and flexible enough to be used on the outer surfaces of products such as bags and canopies and umbrellas.

Still, the jury is out about whether the appeal of such products will be powerful enough to convert privately held Konarka into a profitable business. There’s a continuous effort at the company to make its organic photovoltaics more efficient at converting light into electricity and to make them last longer than the current shelf life of three to five years. Meantime, the company’s West Coast rival, El Monte, CA-based startup Solarmer Energy, says that it has developed the most efficient organic solar cells in the world. And industry reports indicate that multi-national corporations with deeper pockets than Konarka and Solarmer have entered the fray in developing organic photovoltaics.

“Long-shot is a very good word for” companies like Konarka and Solarmer, said Johanna Schmidtke, an analyst for Lux Research, which recently completed a report that described all the leading developers of organic photovoltaics (sometimes called OPVs) as long-shots for success. “Whether or not they succeed in the long term is still … Next Page »

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