With teammates from across the University of Michigan, Matt Schaar, a dual MPP and MBA student, finished third in the 2009-2010 Clean Energy Prize competition, winning $10,000 to commercialize a new, environmentally friendly device for manufacturing silane gas—projected to be a $5.8 billion market in 2010. This entrepreneurship competition, presented by DTE Energy and U-M, challenged collegiate teams from across Michigan to create multidisciplinary business plans to promote clean-energy technologies.
Schaar's team, Green Silane, created a business plan to commercialize technology developed by an Ann Arbor research firm for creating silane gas—used in semi-conductors, flat-screen TVs, and solar panels. "The demand for silane has nearly quadrupled since 2006, says Schaar, "but right now, there's only a handful of large manufacturing plants in the U.S. that make silane and it's a very capital- and energy-intensive process."
Beyond the expense, the current silane gas production technique is also dangerous—for people and the environment. To begin, silane is pyrophoric: it spontaneously combusts when exposed to air and has caused a number of fatal industrial accidents. It's also toxic—continuous exposure to low level concentrations can be lethal. Further, synthesizing silane with the current technique only increases the safety risks because it involves boiling hydrochloric acid, a hazardous raw material, at very high temperatures. Many reported spills over the past few years have caused both environmental and personal harm, says Schaar.
The device Schaar and his team are commercializing is not only more cost-effective, it's also safer and smaller than the existing production equipment and more environmentally-friendly. With this device, users and distributors can make silane on site without hazardous raw materials and expensive, large facilities. While the gas itself is still dangerous, clarifies Schaar, the new product eliminates the need to transport it over long distances and mitigates the potential risks involved with handling it.
Schaar says he used ideas gained in an "Innovation Policy" class last semester to position the venture as a beneficial clean-tech innovation for the state of Michigan. "That's why we've included in our proposal a goal to keep our manufacturing within the state, and I think having some of those considerations in mind will make us more attractive to the investment and manufacturing communities here in Michigan." Schaar's team, which includes dual-degree MBA and MS students Russell Baruffi and Brian Katzman, plans to reinvest the $10,000 in prize money back into the business and will be presenting at other competitions across the U.S. and Canada in the coming months. Schaar says the prize isn't the most important benefit of winning the competition, though. "In all honesty, the biggest reward from these competitions is getting exposure to the people that can provide even more detailed advice and faster paths to potential funding sources. Based on the positive feedback we've received so far, we have a lot of momentum to bring Green Silane to market."
Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2010 State & Hill here.