In the brave new world of Aldous Huxley, the stuff of happiness for all good alphas, betas and semi-moron epsilons was "soma." That was fiction.
Closer to today's reality is refined silicon. Like "soma," it promises to transcend social distinctions. Processed into computer chips, it makes toys bilingual, enables watches to give square roots and cause make-believe warships from galaxies far, far away to crash and go boom in the comfort of your own living room.
Like green beans and baby peas, silicon has a valley of its own in California (Silicon Valley). But Joseph Lindmayer was tired of competing for refined silicon with the people in California who make it into computer chips. So he started a valley of his own in Montgoemry County.
Lindmayer is president of two companies now. One of them, Semix, Inc. in Gaitherburg, makes silicon. The other, Solarex in Rockville, uses silicon from Semix to make solar power cells.
Though few Montgomery Countians likely have heard of either company, both are among the fastest growing in the area. Solarex, with more than $10 million in sales last year, is far and away the world's largest producer of photovoltaic cells, or panels of silicon wafers that generate electricity from sunlight.
The company started seven years ago in Lindmayer's dining room.
To hear critics tell it, in the dining room is where Lindmayer should have stayed. His visions of electric solar cells on rooftops across the country -- revolutionizing the way we generate power -- are just pipe dreams: solar electricity is too expensive.
That reasoning, however, has not kept Solarex from doubling in size every year. The company that began seven years ago with Lindmayer and a dozen researchers now lists more than 300 on its payroll -- approximately 70 of them in research and development alone. Another 100 employes are expected to be hired this year.
Like a gangly teen-ager continually outgrowing his tennis shoes, Solarex is constantly busting out of its space. The company has completely taken over the building off Shady Grove Road where it once occupied a few corner offices. It has rented space in another building off I-270, Semix is in a third.
Sales, too, are expected to double this year.
"They've been on the verge of that every year," said Martha Bozman, assistant to Lindmayr. Production capacity grew five times this year and there seems to be no end in sight for demand.
"We could sell tomorrow everything we made in 1979," Bozman said.
"Our marketing people spend 90 percent of their time saying, 'No I'm sorry.'"
Semix is negotiating a "major" agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for expansion of silicon production. Within a year, Solarex plans to begin contruction of a solar breeder factory, a plant that will make photovoltaic cells from energy generated entirely by a massive array of solar panels.
The new factory, expected to be about 30,000 to 50,000 square feet in size with 100 employes, likely will be built outside the Rockville area, however. Solarex, says Bozman, cannot find enough workers here to man it.
"Our challenge at this point," Bozman said, "is becoming a mainline industry and what we need are production workers. There just aren't that many in Rockville."
The company started under a cloud of controversy when Lindmayer and co-funder Peter Varadi were accused by their former employers, Communications Satelite Corp. (Comsat) of taking secrets to the new firm. A suit by Comsat, and countersuit by Solarex, were both dropped. In those days, Lindmayer was spending much of his time on Capitol Hill trying to convince Congress that solar electric power was worth supporting.
"Sometimes it seems as though nothing can be credible until the government puts a budget to it," Lindmayer said.
"Then," said Bozman, "people really didn't believe it worked. It was science fiction."
Lindmayer was bent on finding terrestrial uses for photovoltaic energy, which, until then, had been used almost exclusively in the space program.
"Solarex said, 'We're going to bring it down to earth.' And everyone thought (Lindmayer) was crazy," Bozman said.
But just getting the company off the ground proved difficult. Convincing private investors was almost as hard as swaying the federal government.
"The idea of starting an industry was very difficult to get across," Lindmayer says. "Raising the capital was also a problem. Genrally, demonstrating the photovoltaic effect (powering a fan or a TV with a photovoltaic panel) excited institutional investors. But this excitement came to a quick halt after they consulted their experts.
"Under these circumstances, one could find capital only from individuals who believed in the philosophy and could not understand the powerful arguments against photovoltaics. In fact, anyone who consulted the established experts cancelled out."
Lindmayer's enthusiam, however, apparently rubbed off on some. With 35 "friends and friends of friends," he and Varadi put together $200,000 to begin making thier first solar panels. Still, the company's hunger for rapid expansion has proved insatiable.
Last year Solarex sold minority interests to firms in France and Holland.
Soon after, Standard Oil Co. of 1 Indiana bought a third minority share.
"Government seems to worry about putting its money into small businesses," said Bozman. "It seems we got a lot more respectable when Standard Oil bought in."
Though relatively unknown to the general public, Solarex's cells for powering remote weather stations, radioi tracking devices and irrigation pumps have been installed on nearly every continent. They make no noise, emit no pollutants and require no maintenance.
An AM radio station in Bryan, Ohio, is powered entirely by Solarex cells in a DOE demonstration project. In another project, Solarex cells supply the energy for a community college in Arkansas. Solar fence chargers made with Solarex cells are available through the Sears catalogue.
The steady world-wide demand for photovoltiac equipment has forced upon Solarex what observers have long regarded as the one thing most essential to making solar energy feasible for widespread use: mass production.
"We're trying to make things a whole lot simpler," said Bozman. "We're moving away from the laboratory and toward the industrial. Standardization is the wave of the future." In the production laboratories, where technicians wear blue jeans and T-shirts declaring "No Nukes," putting together photovoltaic cells was, until recently, largely the work of human hands. Increasingly, the job of cutting the silicon, baking on different chemicals, implanting metals to carry electricity and testing them for efficiency is being automated.
This, says Bozman, is bringing down the price of the cells. Where once the cost of producing a kilowatt hour of electricity with photovoltaics was close to $100, it is now nearer $3.
"We're moving into cost competitiveness with diesel," she said. By 1986, some energy officials hope photovoltaics will be competitive with utility-produced electricity, which is less than $1 a kilowatt hour.
Still, the tight supply of silicon, and its cost, presented an obstacle. About five years ago Lindmayer began developing a substitute.
Silicon, in its raw state an abundant material found in ordinary sand, normally requires a long process of refinement so that it can transmit an electrical charge when struck by the sun's rays. The substance is allowed to grow in a bath until if forms a single, cylindrical crystal, much like fifth-grade experiments in which crystals form on a string left to dangle in a glass of sugar water.
The process is time consuming and expensive.
"It's just a bad idea," said Bozman. "So we invented a way around that.
At Simex the silicon is cast into a brick shape, then cut into square wafers -- thinner than a dime -- about the size of a standard bahtroom tile.
Though many in the scientific community expected the Simex silicon to be less efficient, the new "semicrystalline" cells work as well, Lindmayer insists, as those made of "grown" silicon. And they cost half as much.
DOE has commissioned teir use in a demonstration project in Oklahoma City.
Even though costs must be brought down considerably more before photovoltiacs become a popular energy option, Solarex officials believe that eventually solar cells will be lighting lights and running refrigerators in homes across the county.
"Of course we're not providing the power that coal does," said Bozman. "But by the end of the decade, we certainly will be. You'll have them on your roof."