by: Joel Makower

The Palo Alto Research Center, the storied Xerox subsidiary responsible for many of the computer world's breakthrough technologies, is making a move into clean technology and sustainable products and services. It's a watershed moment of sorts: the birthplace of today's user-friendly computing wants to be the birthplace of tomorrow's clean and green innovations.

PARC, as it's more commonly known, recent launched a Clean Technology Initiative, focused on key areas of clean and sustainable technologies: solar, energy distribution, energy conservation and efficiency, clean water, air quality, and some paper-reduction technologies (the latter, of course, aimed at Xerox's core business).

The initiative evolved over the past year, like many PARC projects do, as a grassroots initiative based on "the instincts and interests of PARC's research community," Jennifer Ernst, PARC's communication manager, told me recently. The group brought in speakers and held roundtable discussions to learn more about the sustainability and clean-tech space. "We started carving out places where we thought we could make a difference."

The first result of those efforts, just announced, is a partnership with SolFocus, Inc., which is developing concentrator photovoltaic systems. SolFocus aims to employ PARC technology to cut the cost of solar power by as much as half. The Saratoga, Calif., company began working in 1999 to develop hydrogen delivery systems for fuel cells, but has since turned its focus on bringing down the cost of solar "in a dramatic fashion," says the company.

PARC is helping SolFocus develop a second-generation of its concentrating solar collector that dramatically improves cost, durability, and scalability. The innovative module design is based on a solid-state, or "one-piece," concept featuring small reflective concentrator elements housed in a flat molded glass tile with mirrors on each side. Among the advantages of the new module: it uses far less silicon, has no moving parts that could lead to mechanical failure, has minimal components, and uses automated assembly technology. The first-gen SolFocus concentrator prototypes were installed at PARC last month. (For more technical information, download a PDF Here.)

SolFocus is just the beginning. Ernst sees great potential for PARC to become one of the leading hubs of clean and sustainable technologies. "We see this as an area that's growing not only from the needs of the world but the needs of regulatory pressures, market trends, and consumer demand for more green products," she says. PARC will conduct research for companies that want to advance their own green initiatives, or, as with SolFocus, leverage its own competencies to help take new ventures to market.

Those competencies are not insignificant. After all, PARC is the birthplace of the Ethernet, laser printers, computer windows, WYSISYG editing, bit-mapped displays, and the first commercial use of the computer mouse, among other things we now take for granted. (This blog I'm writing requires nearly all of these things to get from me to you.) The potential for applying this rich history of innovation to clean technology is, suffice to say, very exciting for those of us who have watched, and helped, this field grow, often in fits and starts.

PARC's Ernst reflects that big vision: "If we were to look back ten years from now and say who are the leaders in clean technology, we would hope that a significant number of them would have PARC technology as their root of their success."

And a lot of us will look forward to watching that vision come true.

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