New Plastic Solar Design
Promises Efficient Power

Plastic solar panels Could be ready
for commercial use in two to three years.

by Scott Bronstein


ATHOL, Mass.

In a quiet research laboratory here, an Inventor is developing solar power devices designed to operate four or five times more efficiently than the beat photovoltaic cells now in use, and at a small fraction of the cost.

Alvin M. Marks, an inventor who, holds patents for a 3-D movie process and polarized film for sunglasses, is working with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to build prototypes of the solar power devices. He received one patent for the devices earlier this year and another in 1984.

The Exxon Corporation recently offered $9 million for Mr. Marks's patents, and for Phototherm, the small company that controls them. according to Gerard J. Aitken 3rd, chairman of Phototherm's board. But company officials chose not to sell; instead they signed the development contract with Westinghouse, which says it is particularly interested in the technology's applications for Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.

Mr. Marks says solar panels made with Lepcon or Lumeloid, the materials he patented, could turn 70 to 80 percent of the energy from sunlight they receive into electricity. Most photovoltaic cells are only about 15 percent efficient. The electricity would cost three or four cents per kilowatt hour, as against about 10 cents a kilowatt hour for commercially generated electric power. Most photovoltaic cells produce energy for around $1 per kilowatt hour.

Typical photovoltaic cells use layers of chemically treated metals that produce electric current when struck by sunlight. The basic problem has always been the quantity of current produced per unit cost of the materials used to produce it.

Lepcon, which was a preliminary design, consists of glass panels covered with a vast array of millions of aluminum or copper strips, each less than a micron or thousandth of a millimeter wide. As sunlight hits the metal strips, the energy in the light is transferred to electrons in the metal. which escape at one end in the form of electricity.

Lumeloid uses a similar approach. but substitutes cheaper, filmlike sheets of plastic for the glass panels and covers the plastic with conductive polymers, long chains of molecular plastic units. Lumeloid is easier to manufacture and handle than Lepcon. The company declines, for competitive reasons, to identify the chemicals it uses to produce Lumeloid polymers.

There are as yet no large-scale working prototypes of Mr. Mark's invention, and some scientists have expressed caution in assessing it. "It is beyond our technological fabrication capability at present," said Dr. Edward D. Wolf, the director of the national research facility for submicron structures at Cornell University, who has studied Mr Marks's work."But it's an interesting concept."

Professor Stuart A Rice, dean of the division of physical sciences at the University of Chicago, has also reviewed the patents.

"It is an intellectually challenging idea," he said, "I do not know whether it can be brought into practice, so I don't know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. If it turned out to work, and was very efficient, it would he very significant."

Mr Marks said he believed Lumeloid would be available for commercial use within two or three years. He added that Lepcon and Lumeloid could be used to create lasers, an application he said he had discussed with the Pentagon in conjunction with Westinghouse.

Mr Marks conceded that getting his ideas to the major prototype stage would cost around $5 million. Commercial production of solar panels would cost between $30 million to $5O million, he estimated, and the preliminary work, supported by Westinghouse, is now underway, he said.

Phototherm plans a $15 million initial public stock offering soon to help subsidize development of the solar patents.

Mr Marks has more than 100 other patents, Including the film used on polarized sunglasses, and the process to make 3D movies, and he was also an energy adviser to president John F. Kennedy.

More information can be obtained from patents; 4,574,161 & 4,720,642.


Carving a Line With an Electron Beam

by Edmund L. Andrews

Alvin Marks, the founder of Phototherm Inc. in Amherst, NH, has obtained patent approval for a new sub micron beam writer, a device that carves lines far smaller than those in the circuitry of state of the art computer chips.

Sub micron beam writers, which have been used only in laboratories, carve lines on a surface using a beam of electrons. Because electrons are so much smaller than the wavelenghts of even high frequency lasers, they can cut much finer lines than any other tool. But, the inventor said they were too slow for production purposes.

Mr. Mark's new idea, which has not been tested in practice, is to link together millions of electron emitters over a large surface. The device would then focus the beams through the inverted lens of an electron microscope, shrinking the target area to one square centimeter. By moving the array over a pattern, each of the beams would carve an identical pattern simultaneously.

Mr. Marks said he hopes the invention could be used to make a new form of solar power converter, which he invented, that uses millions of tiny antennas to convert light into electricity. Because the device will carve out only repetitive patterns, it would not help carve the intricate circuits of a computer chip, he said.

Mr. Marks received patent 4,798,959.


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