About SOLEC Solar Energy Corporation

A Solar Success Story: SOLEC Celebrates 40 Years of Innovation

40gSOLEC-Solar Energy Corporation was incorporated in 1974 as a direct response to the 1973 Oil Crisis. The oil embargo triggered sharp rises in energy prices and new solutions were needed to find alternative sources of clean, renewable domestic energy production. From modest beginnings in a small farm building on the outskirts of Princeton, NJ, SOLEC set out to be the leader in solar thermal and energy conservation technologies. During the first few years of research and development, SOLEC sold its first product, an inclinometer (used to show the installation angle for solar panels). By selling several thousand of these, SOLEC was able to modestly offset research expenditures as it brought forward a series of new patent claims for an innovative solar collector design.

Trombe Wall

Trombe wall installation

The new collector would be manufactured using glass tubes and the only methods for applying selective surfaces at that time were by vacuum or chemical vapor deposition, both quite costly procedures. Because of its own need for low cost selective surfaces for its collectors, SOLEC started developing inexpensive spray-applied optical coatings that could perform as well as the chemical or vacuum deposited surfaces. By 1977, the same year patents were filed for its collector design, SOLEC was running its first experimental batches of SOLKOTE Selective Solar Coating. The following year SOLEC started experimenting with low-emissivity coatings as a way to reduce the emissivity of the glass on which the SOLKOTE was to be applied. The combination of the two coatings (the high absorption of the SOLKOTE over the LO/MIT low emissivity base coat) provided the selective surface on glass that SOLEC was looking for.

In 1979, patent #4,155,346 was issued to Robert Aresty of SOLEC for a “Solar Energy Collector”. At the time, it was the largest patent issued to a US citizen (25 claims) in the solar field. The next year SOLEC designed and marketed a new service called “SOLCOST by SOLEC” a computerized design service for architects, builders and homeowners to aide in the sizing of solar thermal systems. Customers would submit detailed load and location data and the sophisticated program would process the information through Boeing’s supercomputers and return a result in 2 day’s time for just $25. The advent of the desktop computer, however, made this a short-lived venture.

By 1981, SOLEC was supplying other US collector manufacturers with its SOLKOTE coating technology and moved to its first full-scale coating production site in Pennington, NJ, in the basement of an old liquor distillery. The following year, SOLEC exhibited at the World Solar Congress in Hamburg, Germany, and secured its first European SOLKOTE customer. It was around this time that the lucrative market for spray-applied solar coatings started to take off and SOLEC shelved its interests in vacuum tube collector manufacturing to focus solely on coatings and supplying the rest of the industry with its unique spray-applied technology. This coincided with a big push from the Carter administration for domestic solar incentives and rebates.

Milagro Gamma Ray Observatory, Los Alamos NM

The success of SOLKOTE prompted a call from Phil Fairey at the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). FSEC also showed an interest in SOLEC’s LO/MIT coating as a radiant barrier substitute. In 1984, FSEC issued a proprietary report on comparative testing of LO/MIT to foil radiant barriers. By 1986, SOLEC was marketing this new paintable low-e technology worldwide for use in the building, roofing and manufacturing industries (LO/MIT-I, e=0.23).

SOLEC finished construction on its very own factory in Ewing, NJ, in 1988, a unique low-energy usage structure in its own right. The factory is heated by a solar thermal array and a novel passive heating system utilizing trombe walls of concrete and water storage tanks. A high temperature, wood-burning gasifier is used for supplemental heat, as there are no gas, electrical or oil heating systems in the building.

By 1992, LO/MIT and SOLKOTE had drawn interest from NASA and were put through extensive studies by NASA-Goddard for use in space and other high tech applications. In the meantime, SOLEC’s R&D team was hard at work developing a low-VOC formulation for LO/MIT, a coating that could be safely sprayed in enclosed environments like attics. LO/MIT-II (e=0.23) debuted in 1997 as an optical analog to LO/MIT-I, but water-borne. SOLEC also announced its “online” presence by launching its website, www.solec.org.

AURA Gemini Observatory South, Cerra Pachon Chile

The following year, ASTM devised specifications for low emissivity coatings used under the roof, and called them Interior Radiation Control Coating Systems (IRCCS). By 2001, LO/MIT found its way into the Florida State Energy Code as the state added a separate section just for IRCCS. Now Floridians could receive tax incentives for adding LO/MIT in new construction. SOLEC still remained active in the research community and collaborated with the Milagro Gamma Ray Observatory, coating its 50,000sqft flexible polypropylene membrane with LO/MIT-I to aide in detecting clear gamma ray signals from across the universe.

In 2002, LO/MIT became part of the Energy Star (LO/MIT-I) and Energy Star Ally (LO/MIT-II) programs. By 2006, several low emissive coatings competitors and cheap knock-offs had flooded the market after LO/MIT’s success. With all these coatings claiming to provide energy savings, a comprehensive market study and an efficiency threshold were needed to separate the wheat from the chaff. RIMA (Reflective Insulation Manufacturers’ Association) developed this study comparing all of the coatings on the market and fine-tuned ASTM’s definition of an IRCCS as a coating having a thermal emittance of 0.25 or below. Of the 16 coatings initially tested, only four passed, two of which were LO/MIT-I & LO/MIT-II.

Areva Solar

Kimberlina Solar Thermal Energy Power Plant, Bakersfield CA

By this time, LO/MIT was also finding niche applications in many other industries, notably super-large telescope dome structures. LO/MIT has coated many of the world’s largest telescopes including the Gran Telescopio Canarias in 2008, then the world’s largest single aperture telescope. The Montreal Canadiens added LO/MIT to their new practice facility roof, another niche for LO/MIT in super-cooled structures. Success was also coming in manufacturing industries as LO/MIT was used to coat Ford Taurus engine mounts and Boeing APU’s.

SOLEC finished its Ewing, NJ, factory expansion project in 2010, enlarging its facility to over 10,000sqft. At the same time, SOLEC was launching its newest and most efficient IRCCS yet, LO/MIT-II MAX (e=0.147). Not to be outdone, SOLKOTE started finding a second home in the solar thermal industry. Its optical properties and thermal characteristics proved to be a perfect fit for the new concentrator marketplace that was developing at the time. SOLKOTE quickly became the go to absorber for some of the largest solar thermal concentrating installations around the globe, including Kogan Creek, Australia and Rajasthan, India, providing hybridization technology to fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, supplementing solar super-heated steam to lessen carbon output and increase power supply.

SpaceX Dragon Capsule, low earth orbit

By 2012, LO/MIT’s long history of use in the aerospace industry paid off in collaboration with SpaceX. The LO/MIT-I and LO/MIT-II MAX coatings help insulate the Falcon 9 rocketry and Dragon capsules and SOLEC celebrated the Dragon’s first of many successful missions to the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, SOLEC announced the launch of its re-formulated LO/MIT-II product, lowering its emissivity from 0.23 to 0.17, offering consumers much quicker dry times and a lower price point to push the IRCCS competition.

After 40 years in the business, SOLEC is still driving the solar thermal and energy efficiency marketplaces with its reliable, cost-effective coating technologies, thorough research and development and its reputation as a science-first organization. SOLKOTE is now used to produce over 90% of the solar thermal panels manufactured in the US, and is exported to over 30 countries worldwide. LO/MIT is the flagship spray applied radiant barrier (IRCCS) in the US market and is currently being tested by the US Army & Air Force for use in tents and other structures for soldiers stationed around the globe. The R&D department is still hard at work developing new coating technologies that will benefit a wide variety of markets, providing simple, cost-effective solutions to complex heat transfer problems.

How can SOLEC help you?

ICAA Member Spotlight