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Is it dawn or sunset for Konarka’s technology?

• Scott Kirsner via
Scouring the labs of University of Massachusetts Lowell in the late 1990s for new technologies with big potential, Howard Berke stumbled across some experiments being done by the chemist Sukant Tripathy, then the head of the school’s Center for Advanced Materials. Tripathy was creating a new kind of solar cell that used conductive polymers, rather than silicon, to produce power from light.
“There wasn’t a lot to show, and the cells were working at low efficiency,’’ Berke recalls.

But Berke was intrigued by the idea that you could make solar materials the same way photographic film is made, by coating a sheet with special polymer solutions as it ran through automated machinery at high speed. It wasn’t hard to imagine the uses for a thin, flexible kind of solar material unlike the heavy silicon panels that perch on rooftops. You could put it on a soldier’s tent, or the top of your car, or a beach umbrella. Berke signed on to help form a company called Konarka Technologies Inc., and he became its first chief executive.

In the decade since, Konarka has managed to turn those early lab experiments, along with the work of many other researchers, into a product it calls Power Plastic. The 100-person company has raised more than $170 million from an army of backers, and another $20 million in grants from government agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Pentagon.

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