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GT Buys Confluence Solar, Set to Offer Novel Silicon Ingot Technology

Solar equipment maker GT Advanced Technologies bought Confluence Solar for $60 million to become the only provider of a technology that just about every silicon cell maker wants.

Confluence Solar has developed equipment to make monocrystalline silicon ingots at lower costs than the conventional method, GT’s CEO Tom Gutierrez told financial analysts during a conference call Thursday. It’s a type of technology that has the solar world buzzing recently, including GT’s existing customers.

Monocrystalline silicon cells are several percentage points more efficient, but also pricier, than their multicrystalline counterparts. Silicon ingots are materials that are made into wafers, from which solar cells are produced.  The Confluence acquisition enables GT to enter the monocrstalline silicon equipment business. GT already sells equipment for making multicrystalline silicon ingots. 

The interest in this type of solution is extremely high,” Gutierrez said. “We will be the only merchant supplier in the marketplace for some time.”

GT didn’t divulge the details of Confluence’s process, but what it is pursuing is the same as many solar equipment makers: how to make monocrystalline silicon cells more cheaply.

Companies from Suntech Power to JA Solar have been working on making cells from monocrystalline silicon wafers that use a novel concept that has seen its patent expired in recent years, reported the Technology Review. The process, which uses a modified method for making multicrystalline ingots, produces wafers that are mostly monocrystalline in the center but contains multicrystalline around the edges. In July, Suntech, which claims its process can make monocrystalline silicon wafers at roughly the same cost of multicrystalline silicon wafers, launched a solar panel using the new monocrystaline silicon cells. 

Confluence's technology isn't the same as the one Sutech has been pursuing. Instead, Confluence's makes only monocrystalline ingots (without the multicrystalline structure near the edges). GT itself has been developing a process that follows the same concept as the one employed by Suntech. A pure monocrystalline silicon ingot will lead to cells that are still more efficient than cells made with the hybrid ingot, said Jeff Nestel-Patt, a GT spokesman. 

With solar cell prices falling quickly, the pressure is greater than ever for manufacturers to improve their solar cells and panels’ efficiencies in order to set their products. While they are working internally on boosting efficiencies, they have been searching for technologies they can license or buy that will speed up their deployment of more efficient cells and panels. Innovalight, which sells silicon ink, has taken advantage of this trend, and it in turn caught the attention of DuPont, which recently bought Innovalight for an undisclosed amount.

Confluence had developed the technology but had yet to commercialize it when GT bought it. GT, based in New Hampshire, plans to complete a pilot line Confluence started and launch equipment with Confluence’s technology next year, Gutierrez said. Once this new equipment business is up and running, GT expects it to generate $300 million to $400 million in revenues each year, he added.

The acquisition also includes an additional $20 million that GT will pay to Confluence shareholders if certain technical and financial goals are met. Confluence’s private equity investors included Convexa Capital, OCI and Oceanshore Investors. The startup company, founded in 2007, had raised around $23 million to $24 million in venture capital before the acquisition, said David Gray, vice president of strategic development. 

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