Dyesol’s electric blue sky
By Brad Howarth
Technology that allows iron roofing or glass windows to generate electricity – it sounds like futuristic pipe dreams, but Dyesol’s power-generating innovation is turning the dream into revenue-generating reality.
On 30 October in the northern Welsh town of Shotton, Australian solar technology innovators Sylvia and Gavin Tulloch proudly attended the ribbon-cutting at a multi-million dollar steel production facility that could redefine the way we think both about building design and energy consumption.
The pair’s company, Dyesol, is working with the world’s fifth-largest steel producer Corus Group (owned by the Indian giant Tata Steel Group) to launch a plant that will make steel roofing cladding that actually generates its own electricity.
The opening is the latest step in a 10 year journey that has taken Dyesol’s solar technology into Europe and Asia – and a long way from its birthplace in the NSW town of Queanbeyan.
Husband and wife team Sylvia and Gavin admit it has been a long and difficult journey. On top of all the technology challenges involved in the solar industry, the pair have battled funding problems and watched as other nations have more actively supported the development of solar technologies.
“It was particularly frustrating when we would make a significant breakthrough on a technically challenging process but were then unable to access funding to go to the next stage,” Sylvia says.
“In the early days, we had to triple-mortgage the house to be able to do so. Fortunately for Gavin and I, our enormous emotional and financial commitment to the project paid off.”
Rather than taking on the entire solar supply chain, Sylvia says her company has concentrated on making the various ingredients that go into creating dye solar cells. This allows Dyesol to limit its investment in manufacturing infrastructure to that necessary for creating the nano-scale dyes and other materials that are the heart of the technology, rather than creating the cells themselves.
“The idea is to form these partnerships with companies in various market sectors that can take advantage of the dye solar cell technology,” she says.
“Corus has excellent market share in the UK and is pretty good in Europe, but with Tata buying them we end up with the whole of Asia, and Tata also extends into the Americas to some extent.”
The multi-partner, multi-collaboration model also allows Dyesol to spread the risk – a lesson learnt when a previous partner changed direction and left the company in a difficult position.
“Our current model of partnerships and collaborations in key locations around the world makes much more sense, especially as our partners understand best their local market conditions, which are very different from country to country.”
The technology behind the company
Dyesol is a global pioneer of dye-sensitised solar cell (DSC) technology, which uses a nano-scale dye to capture energy from light in the form of a stream of electrons. The dye is layered on to a surface such as metal or glass, with the resulting electrons channelled into an inverter and fed back into the electrical grid.
DSC panels are simpler to produce than conventional photovoltaic panels, they can generate electricity in low-light situations, and can be transparent or mixed with paints.
The new facility is the result of a $5 million investment from the Welsh Assembly, designed to test whether roofing steel can be turned into a system for generating electricity. It is also the largest grant to a research and development program that the Welsh Assembly has made.
Sylvia Tulloch says the Welsh Government is following a similar program to the one taken by the Irish Government in courting the IT industry 20 years earlier.
“Opto-electronics, of which solar is a subset, is a key identified area there, and so they are investing quite a lot into the companies and into the infrastructure to support that,” she says.
“People talk about the solar industry and its importance in climate change, but down the track the companies that are actually manufacturing solar panels have got this big new export opportunity to bring money into the country.”
The relationship with Corus commenced in mid 2008 when Dyesol was approached to discuss European Union proposals for carbon-neutrality in the production of building materials. Colour-bonded steel requires particularly high levels of electricity in its creation, threatening its viability.
Dyesol was subsequently paid to conduct feasibility studies on whether its nano-coating could be properly applied in the steel manufacturing process, effectively turning the product into a large-scale solar cell. The project commenced on 1 May this year and is expected to run for three years.
The actual amount of electricity generated is dependent on the amount of sunlight that the roofing surface receives, but the Tullochs are confident that it is commercially viable.
The Tullochs hope that the new Welsh facility represents a turnaround for the company’s financial position as it moves out of its research and development phase and into supplying products for commercial production. Dyesol lost $7.66 million on revenue of $2.2 million for the year to 30 June. However, Sylvia says the company is fully-funded.
Wales is not Dyesol’s only European win, with the company also selling its technology for creating and working with dye solar cells to the University of Rome. The company has also signed deals with two Italian companies, the energy company ERG Renew, and the world’s largest building façade company, Permasteelisa, which are interested in applying dye-sensitised solar cell technology to glass.
The company has also been working with the Welsh company G24 Innovations, which intends to market a charger for mobile phones using dye-sensitised solar cell technology for developing markets where electricity is not reliable or entirely unavailable. Dyesol has also been making sales into Asia.
Dyesol has also won a $2 million contract with the Australian Department of Defence to supply technology for field-based electrical chargers, to reduce the burden on soldiers of carrying batteries. The DSC technology has the advantage that it can be mixed with paint, making it ideal for camouflaged situations.
“What we are coming to find is that when we started this we thought that low cost was the thing that would be the differentiator for this technology, but it is not,” Sylvia says. “It is that you can integrate it into all kinds of products.”
On 7 October the company opened a $2.4 million manufacturing facility in Queanbeyan with the capacity to manufacture $20 million in dye annually.