In 2011, the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia/California National laboratories created an "open campus" designed to be a breeding ground for public and private innovation.

In this open, unclassified research and development space, called the Livermore Valley Open Campus, the laboratories hope to harness the power of the private sector to help produce solutions in areas such as energy production, security and high-performance computing. The 110-acre parcel along the eastern edge of the Lawrence and Sandia sites bordering Greenville Road allows private entities to collaborate with lab employees without having to access the top-secret, high-security portions of the labs. The Livermore labs employ more than 7000 people.

A startup Livermore solar company located just 2 miles from the open campus is one of the first companies to take advantage of Open Campus, and the labs' scientific expertise. Cool Earth Solar, located on Las Positas Road between First Street and Vasco Road, will build and test innovative solar panels. Cool Earth developed solar panels that direct the sun toward cells placed within an inflatable plastic tube. The thin plastic inflatable solar arrays allow for fewer materials to be used in manufacturing.

In a five-year agreement, researchers at Sandia will help develop and validate Cool Earth's technology. One of the company's units has already been successfully set up on Open Campus. Cool Earth CEO Rob Lamkin said the collaboration with Sandia lends credibility to their approach.

"This agreement with Sandia and the Department of Energy represents the 'coming out,' first-ever public deployment of our technology," said Lamkin.

The technology Cool Earth employs may make solar energy more cost-effective by using cheaper, less-dense materials while maintaining a high level of electricity production. The race is on to help make solar energy more cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The federal government has set a goal of 2020 for solar to be cost-effective.

There are many competing technologies. Some solar panels are flat, and some use curved mirrors to concentrate the sun's beams. When Cool Earth was founded in 2007, a standard flat solar panel cost about $8 per watt produced. Now, the manufacturing cost for the same amount of energy produced is $1. Cool Earth hopes to make it even cheaper so that solar energy can become a more viable option to replace fossil fuels. The tubes are also easy to install because they weigh less than five pounds.

"For some time now, we had hoped to find a national laboratory partner to give us a different technical perspective on our technology, help improve it and drive it toward commercialization with us," Lamkin said.

Scientists at the Livermore labs make discoveries and inventions every year that change the world. But the labs are closed to the outside world due to the necessity of secrecy and security. This partnership with Open Campus might mean the beginning of the Livermore labs' collective brains and tech know-how spilling out into the rest of the Valley. It will be very interesting to see what else comes from this private-public mixing.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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