Brazil is today one of the few countries that has the know-how of the large-scale production of the so-called Organic Photovoltaics also known as OPV.
Considered the next technological generation in solar energy, because it combines qualities such as flexibility, lightness and transparency, the technology allows applications that are not possible for traditional technologies.
Today marketed by Sunew, a Brazilian company that has BNDESPAR as a partner, the OPV is a subject long followed by BNDES, which supported the first steps of this technology in the country. This story begins when a group of entrepreneurs seek the bank to present Csem Brasil, an applied research center located in Minas Gerais, which would receive support from BNDES Funtec.
“Where in Brazil could we talk, about a decade ago, about nanotechnology from a business perspective? There was no institution in any economy, private or public, that understood us. The BNDES was the only place we could find people who already knew the subject, who had read about printed electronics and printed photovoltaic solar generation and understood our proposal. “
David Travesso often talks about the importance of this initial contact with the BNDES when he counts as the company of which he is a partner, Fir Capital, opted for OPV and created Csem Brasil and later Sunew.
Plastic conducting electricity
Looking like the films of the old analog cameras, the Organic Photovoltaic film is one of several developments in a discovery that won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 for two American researchers and one Japanese.
In research conducted in the 1970s, they discovered that not only metals, but also plastic, after certain modifications, can conduct electricity. Thus, it has become possible to synthetically produce conductive and semiconducting organic materials, yet with an additional advantage: this manufacturing process is inexpensive and can be made via inkjet or offsets.
It became possible to print, for example, electronic circuits or photovoltaic cells, using ‘paint’ made up of organic polymers – the carbon molecules that form the plastic and other materials. The result is a soluble substance capable of conducting electric current, a property previously found only in metals, which can be printed on various types of surfaces, including plastic films – as in the case of OPV, a flexible, lightweight and transparent product that can mold where it is applied.
“By the time we started studying the subject, Koreans had already mastered the use of organic printed electronics technology for display production, the so-called OLeds of organic leds, but there were no consolidated players in organic photovoltaic generation,” David explained.
The last great country in geographical extension without solar generation installed, Brazil was a propitious place for the development of this technology, according to Fir. Other countries had already invested heavily in traditional silicon-based solar generation technology, an inorganic semiconductor. The facilities still had a service life of up to 30 years, which diminished the appetite for bets on innovations.
With regard to this and other opportunities, Fir Capital created in 2006 Csem Brasil, an applied research center that, although it is national, was designed with the help of a Swiss institution, the Center Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (Csem). The European partner inspired Csem Brasil’s role model and still has a seat on its board.
From lab to factory
“Our focus has been to cover the point in the value chain that we call the control point, which in this case is the productive capacity. The goal of Csem Brasil was to make scientific research capable of developing processes and equipment with industrial production efficiency. There were no industries, OPV machines. There were teachers doing OPV on a small scale. We have developed all the steps to take this technology from lab to factory “, says Tiago Alves, who is currently a partner of Fir Capital, CEO of Sunew and board member of Csem Brasil.
In order to bring the technology from the laboratory to the factory, Csem Brasil started by working on a 3m x 1m offset printing machine, which would allow the reproduction of an industrial process at a reduced speed and scale of production.
With the support of the Foundation for Research Support of the State of Minas Gerais (Fapemig), of R $ 7 million, it was possible to assemble a team of specialists from different nationalities who researched the best combinations of the various production variables, at the same time as made a series of adaptations in the equipment.
“This machine had to be modified and for that we needed specialists. We were looking for people who were working with OPV, in the academy or in companies, in all parts of the world where we knew that there was some movement in this direction: China, the United States, Colombia, Germany, etc. ”
David recounts these early moments by pointing out that it was only possible to attract these specialists to work and live in Brazil because Csem Brasil invited them to participate in a project that covered all the research steps necessary to bring technology to market.
This team was strengthened after the 2008 crisis, which led to the bankruptcy of Konarka, a company set up to operate in OPV – a partnership between Kodak, Nobel Prize winner Alan Heegel and major oil companies at the time interested in expanding their business for the renewable energy sector. With the crisis, the oil companies withdrew financial support to the project, which is why it was discontinued.
“They crashed overnight and their tech team was abandoned,” David explains. “We are talking about process technology. It’s like a cake recipe, with lots of control variables. We were able to attract the people who worked in that company’s kitchen. ”
The developed knowledge allowed us to begin the design of an entirely new machine for larger scale production. But more investment was needed to make it a reality.
Financing to achieve the technological forefront
“Economic development can not do without technological development,” says Rodrigo Pedrosa, a BNDES professional who participated in the support operation for Csem Brasil. Created in 2006, BNDES Funtec was, as Pedrosa explains, the ideal financial instrument to support the initiative: a fund with resources exclusively dedicated to research projects for the introduction of innovations in the market and, no less important, in which Brazilian companies may assume a leading role or even leadership in the world.
BNDES contributed R $ 32.3 million in the project, non-reimbursable funds from BNDES Funtec. Engineer Rafael Ferraz, responsible for monitoring support to Csem Brasil, complements Pedrosa. “This is funding for higher risk initiatives, with a concern that goes beyond financing. The focus is to induce avant-garde projects, taking a developer’s view. ”
Composed of five printing stations, the machine created by Csem Brasil is more than 35 m long, and is installed in an area of 882 m2, of which 380 m2 are clean rooms, controlled environment to prevent contact with particles in the air that can compromise the final result.
The bank’s resources have also been used in team training and in research with the pilot machine, which is used to date by Csem Brasil to further advance in the OPV studies and to define the printing parameters of the larger machine.
This new equipment was produced, for the most part, by a German company, from a project of Csem Brasil. “We bought pieces of equipment and put everything together. If you want to copy what you have, you can not. Neither does the manufacturer know the complete equipment “, details Tiago. Suppliers of the inputs, companies like Merck, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo, also do not dominate the production know how of the photovoltaic membrane.
“They provide the polymers, but they do not know how to do the OPV. Production is done by literally following hundreds of parameters, such as thickness of the different layers of the membrane, rate of deposition of each ‘paint’, drying temperature, drying time, machine alignment. The scientific description of the solar membrane is a complex system. It’s almost an organism, “explains Tiago.
From non-refundable shareholding support
Sunew was the spin-off or, translating into Portuguese, the company ‘derived’, created from the works of Csem Brasil to market the developed product. Innovative, support through BNDES Funtec already predicted that, in the event of successful development of the IPO, BNDESPAR, the Bank’s shareholding arm, could participate as a shareholder in the new business.
The BNDES engineer Guilherme Quental was one of those responsible for structuring the company, in which BNDESPAR now holds a 25% stake. He says that “unlike other projects supported by BNDES Funtec, the IPO of Csem Brasil did not have, at the time of hiring the support, a company responsible for bringing innovation to the market, which we call an intervening company. Therefore, if the project succeeds, the technology would be commercially exploited by Csem Brasil itself or by a spin-off created for this purpose. For both hypotheses, BNDES, as the main supporter of the project, was expected to be entitled to share in the results. ”
Union between design and sustainability
In its early stages of development, OPV is still more expensive and less efficient than solar panels with silicon photovoltaic membranes – technology that was born in the 1950s. But the new technology already attracts companies interested in reducing their carbon footprint, which does not have adequate physical space for the installation of robust traditional plates.
In addition, the OPV has cleaner production and opens possibilities from a design point of view, being transparent, thin and flexible. A tree, with curved “leaves” coated with OPV, was installed by Sunew at the last Rock in Rio to provide power to anyone who wanted to charge the cell phones – an example of a custom application.
Paulo Fernando da Silva, an accountant at the BNDES, monitors BNDESPAR’s ownership interest in Sunew and is an alternate representative of BNDES on the board of directors of the company. “With a pipeline (sales under negotiation) turning around $ 50 million, it has already achieved two important commercial contracts. The first was in 2016, with a 100 m2 OPV volume on the facade of a Totvs building, considered by the company’s management as the largest OPV sale in the world.
The second one was recently closed in December 2017 with Hyundai Caoa, also for application on building façade, but now with a significantly larger volume of about 500 m2 of IPO, and for 2018 the sales prospects are still better, “he describes. Marcos Aurélio do Nascimento de Lima, BNDES’s senior advisor, points out that “the company is capitalized and has installed capacity for the production of 400 thousand square meters of OPV per year.”
Although the financial return was not the focus of the support, engineer Juliana Pradel points out that “BNDES exercised the right to participate in the company that was created, which is a return to the Bank and demonstrates that projects supported by BNDES Funtec can repercussions on development of value for the BNDES. ”
While the Csem Brasil team is still engaged in OPV research and Sunew is accumulating committed clients with sustainability, David Travesso, a partner of Fir Capital, director of Csem Brasil and chairman of Sunew, is worried about bringing more Brazilian companies to the market. business, in other positions in this productive chain, development opportunity for the country that the BNDES team has identified since the beginning of the support.
“We started working on disruptive technology. We are talking about a nonexistent value chain. It is a product that is made with inputs from Japan, Canada, France, Holland, United States. In a sense, we are like Embraer when it started: in Brazil, but using inputs and components from outside. We have to study what can be produced by the Brazilian chemical, pharmaceutical industry. This supply chain will succeed. Are we going to get some of the companies and entrepreneurs here to join us? ” concludes David Travesso.
Source: (in portuguese) https://www.bndes.gov.br/wps/portal/site/home/transparencia/resultados-para-a-sociedade/projetos-apoiados/empreendedorismo-financiamento-publico-brasil-lideranca-tecnologia-energia-solar