The Chronicle Herald
James Risdon

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is pumping $5.6 million into a Halifax-based company’s research to develop a super-thin and ultra-lightweight solar cell membrane that could be used in aviation or on electric car roofs.

Still in its development phase, Metamaterial Technologies’ metaSOLAR membrane is smaller than a human nerve cell but packs a big punch.

“If you took our film outside on a sunny day beside a traditional solar cell, we would have double the wattage per square metre,” said George Palikaras, the founder and chief executive officer of Metamaterial Technologies, in an interview Thursday.

With further research, Metamaterial Technologies hopes to be able to shrink the thickness of solar cells using its membrane from about 1.5 times the size of a human egg down to less than the diameter of an amoeba. At that thickness, the entire solar cell would be flexible enough to bend and put on rounded surfaces.

The company is eyeing the automotive and aerospace industry, hoping to develop a high-performance material that will be lightweight enough to be used in the transportation sector.

A Canadian defence contractor, Lockheed Martin, inked a US$1.4-billion deal to sell 17 C130J Super Hercules transport aircraft to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 2007, delivering the last of them in 2012. Under that contract and another for security services, Lockheed Martin was bound by a federal government policy which required it to invest in Canadian research and development.

"We are pleased to see our (Industrial and Technological Benefits Policy) investment going to a great Canadian global innovator such as Metamaterial Technologies,” said Charles Bouchard, Lockheed Martin’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “Their work in the field of smart materials and in developing a disruptive solar application suitable for flight is an example of what Canadian technology offers the world.”

Although Palikaras would not divulge the specifics of the research and development budget for creating a commercially-viable metaSOLAR product, he did peg the total budget at between $10 million and $20 million. The Lockheed Martin investment is to be spread over five years but Palikaras is hoping to get the work done sooner with the help of as-yet-undisclosed partners in the academic world and the solar industry.

“With some special partnerships that we will be introducing later this year, we will be able to cut that back a couple of years . . . and have the product out in three years,” he said.

During that time, seven-year-old Metamaterial Technologies is expected to roughly triple in size. It now employs 33 people full-time and has another 17 who work as part of what Palikaras calls the “extended team.” That’s a total of 50 people.

“I can see, in the next three years, 100 people joining our company,” he said.

Richard Billard, president of the Atlantic Canada Aerospace and Defence Association, sees great promise in the Lockheed Martin-Metamaterial Technologies partnership.

“It’s great that some of these larger companies are taking advantage of the innovation of some of the smaller companies that we have in the region,” he said in an interview. “(Metamaterial Technologies has) partnered not only with Lockheed Martin but some other large primes as well in the past in order to leapfrog from a small R&D company into a production-level firm producing leading-edge technology that is going to be used worldwide.”

According to Billard, other small companies can do the same type of thing and not only survive but thrive while remaining in the region and recruiting smart people coming out of Atlantic Canadian universities to build their workforce.

The metaSOLAR prototype uses a layer of nano-engineered, cone-like glass structures no bigger than a small bacteria to guide light into the membrane and prevent energy from being lost due to light reflecting off a solar cell’s surface. Then, under that layer of glass, are layers of other materials arranged in a way that Palikaras will not divulge. It’s a corporate secret. The effect of those additional layers, though, is to trap the light and that makes the membrane black.

“This agreement will allow us to accelerate the development of metaSOLAR as we aim to enter the solar market by providing advanced photovoltaic technology to the aerospace and defence industry,” said Palikaras in a statement. “MetaSOLAR will be ideal for harvesting energy in the transportation industry beyond aviation."

The metaSOLAR membrane incorporates a metal mesh, which the company calls NanoWeb, so fine it can’t be seen with the naked eye. Metamaterial Technologies picked up the technology to make that mesh when it bought Silicon Valley area’s Rolith Inc. in May 2016 for an undisclosed amount. Metamaterial is also using that office to showcase its technology.

The privately-held company’s founder and top exec would not divulge its revenues Thursday but admitted it is not yet in the black because it’s still investing so much in research and development.

Harry Atwater, a professor of applied physics and materials science at the California Institute of Technology, thinks the company’s research is promising.

"Metamaterials are, in essence, the materials of the future,” said Atwater in a statement. “(Metamaterial Technologies) is pioneering large-scale affordable nanofabrication technology that can push the boundaries for crystalline silicon solar efficiency and create very thin form factors for solar cells.”

Lockheed Martin, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol LMT, employs roughly 97,000 people worldwide and has a market capitalization of more than US$81.3 billion. Thursday, the company’s stock closed at US$280.96, near the upper end of its 52-week trading range.

With files from SaltWire Network