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3M may expand solar films plant in Missouri

By: Michael Lauzon

March 28, 2013

COLUMBIA, MO. -- 3M Co. is pondering an expansion of its solar films operation in Columbia.

3M introduced its Ultra Barrier Solar Film for flexible solar electricity panels in October 2010 and completed a $20 million expansion aimed at producing the film of its Columbia plant in June 2012.

J. Mike Brooks, president of Columbia's Regional Economic Development Inc. agency, stated in an email that REDI and the state of Missouri are negotiating financial support for another expansion of 3M's Columbia facility. REDI is offering a tax abatement for real and personal property additions related to the expansion. He said terms of the tax abatement are confidential since they are under discussion.

3M did not make officials available to comment on the potential project.

Columbia is a university town with a population, including surrounding areas, of about 108,000. Educational institutions making the city home include the University of Missouri, Columbia College, Stephens College and Moberly Area Community College. Brooks stated that the regional economy is strong but government wants more jobs for college graduates as well as production workers without a college degree.

"3M has been a major manufacturing company in the community for a long time," Brooks said in an email correspondence. 3M had cut employment in Columbia to some 150 workers a few years ago when it shipped some manufacturing offshore. Brooks said REDI helped encourage 3M to invest in Columbia and employment at the 3M plant has grown to nearly 400 as 3M has since added production of solar films, touch-screen films, medical stethoscopes and other products to the site.

Brooks said a solar films expansion could add another 50 jobs to the 3M operation.

3M's Columbia plant manager Bill Moore has worked with REDI to promote a two-year program at Moberly Area Community College combining electrical and mechanical skills with a work program, according to Brooks.

3M has waded into the solar films market along several paths. Its Ultra Barrier Solar Film, a key component of an expansion at Columbia, is aimed at flexible solar panels to generate electricity. It is designed to replace glass and offers good optical transmission in the range needed by photovoltaic materials like copper/indium/gallium/selenide composites. It has high UV stability and water resistance and is flexible. The firm claims it took out more than 45 U.S. patents to protect its technology. Among several companies developing films for flexible photovoltaic systems is DuPont Co., which publicly described a polyimide film for flexible systems during Antec 2011.

3M's renewable energy division's solar offerings include a new generation of solar mirror films made of PET and UV-stabilizing fluoropolymers. The films feature birefringent nano layes to boost efficiency. 3M finds the new films are an improvement over older silver-coated acrylic films. Another 3M solar entrant is fluoropolymer backside film for photovoltaic installations and specialty tapes and adhesives for photovoltaic assemblies.