Friday, February 10, 2012

Kodak’s New Film: Solar

It has been a rough several years for Eastman Kodak, the 120-year-old film and, now, digital imaging company. The pain intensified last week with the announcement that the iconic company will endure a painful bankruptcy restructuring and a US$950 million lifeline of financing from Citibank. While its 1993 spinoff, Eastman Chemical, has thrived and become a Fortune 500 company, Kodak has sputtered. The company sat on the digital technology one of its employees invented in 1975, and years later, when its management realized that Asian companies could produce superior digital products for far cheaper, Kodak’s market dominance had disappeared. Meanwhile, its long and heated rivalry with Fuji became a one-sided smackdown with the Japanese competitor coming out far ahead.
Natcore Technologies, one of Kodak’s last hopes

But could Kodak come back? One opportunity lies in thin-film solar technology. The company is partnering with Natcore Technologies, a New Jersey-based startup, to create flexible solar cells.

The process involves using a liquid phase deposition process that covers carbon nanotubes with solar semiconductor material. The results are microscopic thin and flexible solar cells. Natcore, which was awarded a patent for the process last fall, says that this technique could be just as efficient as the conventional silicon cells currently on the market, but would be cheaper to manufacture. In fact, the cost could be reduced as much as half, because they could be produced on Kodak’s equipment that at one time churned out photographic film. While thin film solar has created excitement among solar aficionados, its efficiency still lags behind the dominant silicon offerings available.

Some experts say that no matter how advanced the technology is, there are hurdles to bringing the product to market. An oversupply of solar panels, in part because of cheap exports from China, have resulted in low prices. Investors, however, are bullish on Natcore’s potential and closed on a private placement deal last week. With a bevy of startups entering the solar market, and established companies including Panasonic and Dow looking to revamp their business models, the future looks great for solar energy customers. Companies in this crowded space, however, face a highly competitive landscape and thin profits.

For Natcore, its potential looks bright if its flexible and efficient solar product can scale. Kodak, however, is on thin ice. Close to selling off some of its lucrative patents, and having one year to submit a reorganization plan to bankruptcy court, the former camera and film giant will need more partners like Natcore to keep from shuttering. Kodak’s culture of complacency and arrogance will also have to change; there is no mention of Natcore on its own site.


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