Semprius plans manufacturing plant

Staff WriterJuly 19, 2011 

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David Gomez, process engineer with Semprius, works under the illumination of yellow lighting at the company's laboratory. A manufacturing plant would give a much-needed economic boost to Vance County.

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  • Based: Research Triangle Park

    Founded: 2005 with technology spun out of the University of Illinois

    Financial backers: The private company has raised more than $30 million in venture funding from Siemens, Durham's Intersouth Partners and In-Q-Tel, an investment firm affiliated with the CIA

    Employees: about 30

    Business: In addition to using its micro-transfer printing technology to manufacture solar cells, Semprius hopes to license it to others for non-solar applications such as LCD displays and medical devices

    Top executive: CEO Joseph Carr

Semprius, a Durham semiconductor startup that recently raised $20.6 million, is expected to receive financial assistance worth millions from state and Vance County officials to open a solar cell manufacturing facility near Henderson that eventually could create hundreds of jobs.

An announcement could come as soon as this morning. Any state incentives would need to be approved by the N.C. Commerce Department's Economic Investment Committee, which is scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. in Raleigh.

And Gov. Bev Perdue is scheduled to make a jobs announcement at 10 a.m. today at Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson. Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson declined to comment further Monday.

The project would be the latest example of how the Triangle is quickly emerging as a hub for green jobs. From smart grids to LED lighting, the Triangle is the nation's second-fastest growing region for green jobs, according to a report issued last week by the Brookings Institution.

With state unemployment still hovering at a 9.7 percent average, politicians are eager to prove that they are trying to attract one of few sectors that is seeing job growth - even if it means taking a big bet on a largely unproven company with promising technology.

State officials' willingness to consider giving incentives potentially worth millions to a startup has much to do with Semprius' backers. Corporate giant Siemens, a leading builder of solar farms, acquired a 16 percent state in the company last month.

The discussions between Semprius and state and local officials were confirmed by state Rep. Jim Crawford, a Democrat who represents Vance County.

Semprius CEO Joe Carr said last month that the location of the plant is under discussion, and that an announcement could be made in the near future. He declined to comment Monday.

13.3% unemployment

The plant would give a much-needed economic boost to Vance County, where the unemployment rate was 13.3 percent in May - well above the state average.

It would also give the Triangle another semiconductor company that, like LED-maker Cree in Durham, has both office and manufacturing facilities in the region.

Vance County officials declined to comment on the discussions. The county is working with the state Commerce Department on several economic development projects, County Manager Jerry Ayscue said.

"Any announcements or things like that would come out of the Department of Commerce at the appropriate time," he said.

Commerce officials won't comment on any potential projects, spokeswoman Kim McCarl said.

Semprius, which has about 30 employees at its offices in Durham, would be eligible to receive state incentives only if the company also considered sites outside of North Carolina for is expansion. The company is considering building in an empty facility near the Triangle North Corporate Park.

Out of Illinois, California

The manufacturing plant represents a major milestone for Semprius, which has spent the last several years applying its semiconductor fabrication process to the production of cheaper and more effective solar cells.

Semprius' core technology was developed by three professors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The company is now based in Durham largely because of Carr, 53, who began consulting for Semprius after retiring and relocating to the Triangle from Silicon Valley. He agreed to sign on as CEO on the condition that he would not have to move again.

The Illinois professors patented a process, called micro-transfer printing, which allows a solar cell to be lifted off the substrate on which it was grown. The substrate can then be reused multiple times to grow additional semiconductors.

Although the process could potentially be applied to any number of applications, Semprius has identified solar as being the most promising market.

The cost of producing solar energy has been declining in recent years, but it remains about 21/2 more expensive than traditional forms of electricity, said Stephen Kalland, director of the Solar Center at N.C. State University.

Semprius' technology promises to close that gap.

"If it performs, at scale, the way they are describing it, it could be a real game-changer," Kalland said.

The manufacturing plant is expected to start out producing enough solar cells to generate 5 megawatts of electricity a year. A facility of that capacity would require a workforce of about 60.

Production at the facility could eventually expand to as much as 150 megawatts.

Current facilities

Semprius' employees now operate out of a nondescript building in the Durham side of Research Triangle Park. The offices include two clean rooms, one where solar cells are lifted and printed, and another where the company's lenses are made one at a time.

Semprius currently outsources the processing of its semiconductors to RTI International, a nonprofit research and development company also based in RTP, but that work will be done at the new plant once it opens.

Carr expects the company's workforce in Durham to expand to 45 by the end of the year.

Semprius has been working with Siemens to install small demonstration units of its devices in the southeastern U.S. The core markets for the devices are not in North Carolina, but rather in parts of the world with sunny, dry climates.

Semprius does have two small demonstration units operating behind its RTP offices. Two arrays of solar panels sit on trackers, which rotate to keep the panels directly in line with the sun throughout the day.

Although the unit is primarily used to test the company's technology, it already has one future customer. A Semprius employee has converted an old Volkswagen Beetle into an all-electric vehicle and plans to recharge it during the day.

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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