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GT Buys Twin Creeks' Thin Solar Wafer Tech To Move Beyond Solar Market

GT Advanced Technologies has bought an ultra-thin silicon wafer technology that it says will help reduce the price of producing solar electricity and creates new markets beyond solar for the company, said GT's CEO, Tom Gutierrez, on Thursday.

The factory equipment developer snatched up Twin Creek Technologies’ thin wafer technology, called Hyperion, and a portfolio of patents for $10 million from Twin Creeks’ lenders. GT also agreed to pay royalties that will be based on how well it can sell the thin wafer equipment. GT plans to bring the Hyperion technology to market in late 2014.

Twin Creeks, a San Jose, Calif.-based company, only launched its first tool, called Hyperion, in March this year. Twin Creeks was founded in 2008 and had raised $93 million from investors including Crosslink Capital, Benchmark Capital, Artis Capital Management and DAG Ventures.

Twin Creeks’ demise may not be so surprising considering the solar manufacturing industry is continuing its now 2-year struggle to make money. An oversupply of solar panels and related components has triggered a rapid price decline, the pace of which is hard to match by efforts to cut production costs. Dozens of solar manufacturers worldwide have filed for bankruptcy and shuttered factories. Some have become cheap acquisition targets for corporate giants. In September, Hanergy announced that it was scooping up MiaSole, a solar thin film developer in Silicon Valley that had raised somewhere around $500 million, for a paltry $30 million.

Given that many companies are idling production lines or suspending factory expansion plans, the factory equipment business has suffered as well. GT has tightened its spending and announced last month a plan to lay off 25 percent of its workforce and consolidate its business units. The company posted $2.3 million in net income, or $0.02 per share, on $110 million in revenue for the third quarter of this year. During the third quarter of 2011, it was generated $39.9 million in net income, or $0.29 per share, on $217.7 million in revenue.

GT is looking at using Twin Creeks’ technology to achieve several goals: roll out equipment that will help its solar customers cut manufacturing costs, expand its foothold in the LED business, and conquer the consumer electronics segment. Gutierrez, who spoke via a webcast from a UBS conference on Thursday, said the company's restructuring plan will allow it to devote resources to new technology development, which is key to surviving the tough times.

“If you don’t plant seeds, your farm shrinks,” Gutierrez said.

Carving out new markets for its factory tools is another survival strategy, he said. Back in 2010, 100 percent of GT’s business was in solar. This year so far, 30 percent is in light-emitting diodes (LED).

Twin Creeks’ technology makes it possible to slough off ultra-thin wafers from a monocrystalline silicon ingot. Instead of the usual thickness of 200 microns, Twin Creeks’ Hyperion can do 25 microns. The technology aims to reduce material and production costs.

Here is how the technology works. The Hyperion machine takes a thick block of silicon bombards it with hydrogen ions down to the depth of 20 microns. The ions in effect create a bubble layer. When the wafer is moved to a furnace and heated, the bubble expands and separates the 20-micron top layer from the rest of the silicon block. The remaining silicon block then undergoes the same process again and again.

The technology can apply not only to silicon blocks but also sapphire and other materials. Sapphire, in particular, is a common ingredient in making LED. It also holds promise for making scratch-resistant screens for smart phones and other mobile gadgets since it’s the second hardest material on Earth, behind diamond, Gutierrez said. He believes handset manufacturers will be willing to use scratch-resistant screens even though it’d adds about $15 to the production cost because some consumers spend more than that to buy screen protectors. 

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