Industry News

Many presenters at the Thin-Film Solar Summit (San Francisco, CA, Dec. 2-3) extolled the advantages of achieving economies-of-scale by building larger PV factories.

Gas supply challenges for PV

Many presenters at the Thin-Film Solar Summit (San Francisco, CA, Dec. 2-3). extolled the advantages of achieving economies-of-scale by building larger PV factories. However, such endeavors also bring challenges in terms of delivery of critical supplies such as process gases. To this end, Anish Tolia, market development/solar for Linde Electronics, informed attendees that as the industry scales production, gas technology can significantly impact the cost/Watt (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 Gases can impact all critical cost levers.
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Strong solar and LCD panel growth is straining global supplies for silane, the most critical raw material, but most of the supply chain captive by polysilicon manufacturers, observed Tolia. Future solar applications will use more silane than any other application that demands silane today?he estimates that the future requirements for silence will be ~67,000 tons/year of silane, about double the amount used for semiconductors and LCD manufacturing (excluding polysilicon production).

Figure 2. Reducing cost/Watt requires a transition rom “supplier” to “industry partner.”
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To address the supply issue, Linde has made some strategic investments in silane production in Europe with a couple of long-term contracts to lock in a supply. ?Due to economic issues, the ramps that were planned for 2009-2010 are slower than anticipated, so for now we’ve covered the [silane] gap,? Tolia said, but the long-term issue is whether production capacity can keep up with demand. ?How much confidence do we have in demand forecast[s] to invest $100M up-front in a silane manufacturing plant?? It will come down to a business decision, but Tolia added that there’s no fundamental reason why silane production cannot keep up with demand.

Fig. 3 Replacing NF3 with fluoring can reduce clean time by 3x; total line throughput can be improved by up to 10% by faster cleaning.
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Linde has been particularly focused for the last year on finding ways to help the industry reduce cost of production through gases. Tolia observed that the traditional gas supplier business model has seen companies act more like suppliers rather than partners (Figure 2). ?In solar production, gases have an impact on the end product?we have to think like a module maker,? which cares about keeping costs down, he said.

Gas suppliers need to help the industry achieve its goal of <$1/Watt, and to that end Linde has initiated a number of programs. One focuses on reducing material costs via a recycling program for gases, especially those with low utilization such as silane. Another step that can be taken is replacing NF3 with fluorine (for cleans) to reduce cleaning time and reduce material costs (Figure 3). An added benefit when using fluorine for cleans is that it has a global warming potential (GWP) of 0 vs. 17,000 for NF3. ?D.V.

Analyst: Turnkey TF lines boosted 2008 PV tools

Applied Materials, Oerlikon, and Ulvac all enjoyed record business in 2008 for PV cell manufacturing equipment sales, thanks to the ?rise of the turnkey thin-film line? as the key trend for the year, according to VLSI Research.

Applied notably took the top spot in a list otherwise dominated by European suppliers, according to the preliminary rankings, thanks to ?a huge jump in sales? attributed to both M&A additions and recognition of revenue from its first SunFab turnkey installations (by November seven SunFab customers had received shipments.

Bunched together behind Applied were (in order) Roth & Rau, Centrotherm, Oerlikon, and Ulvac, all separated by only $35M. Manz Automation, Schmid Gruppe, von Ardenne, RENA, and 3S round out the top 10.

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Despite pegging 2008 as the Year of Turnkey Thin Film, VLSI analyst Andrew Thomas noted that growth was strong across all cell technologies despite the tough economic conditions that unfolded later in the year. For 2009 he projects some slowdown of growth in the sector while global economies continue to thaw, but various governments’ commitments to expand and invest in renewable energy should ?ensure continued growth.?

Surfect touts cPV efficiency gains with copper plating

Surfect Technologies Inc. says it has demonstrated copper plating over silver paste on solar cells showing 4%-5% increased energy capture, and a new copper metal deposition process for another 5%-10% increased capture vs. silver paste.

In the first results, the company says it has plated copper over silver paste on wafers from both ?leading solar manufacturers? as well as standard wafers, showing efficiency gains of 0.5%-0.6%, which translates to 4%-5% increased energy capture. Additionally, the company says preliminary tests show that its metallization process enabling direct deposition of copper metal onto bare silicon enhances solar cell efficiency by 1.2%-2.0%, translating to 5%-10% better energy capture; third-party validation of the results is underway.

?Within the second phase of our strategy, we are now compiling additional data that reinforces the efficiencies to be gained from bare metal plating on solar cells, compared to traditional silver paste, using our low-cost tool solution,? said Surfect CEO Steve Anderson, in a statement. ?For the final phase of our strategy, we look forward to introducing additional solar packaging solutions that will significantly enhance module integration and increase performance at the solar panel level,? using the company’s ?direct energy plating? (DEP) technology and its knowledge of semiconductor bumping technology.

EU OK’s funding for German solar projects

The European Commission has backed nearly ?100M (US ~$129M) in aid to two thin-film solar power projects in Germany, saying the benefits of the schemes would outweigh any potential distortion of competition.

Roughly ?40M will go to ersol Thin Film GmbH for a thin-film solar module project in Erfurt, expected to create 461 jobs in the region. The project fits under EU regulations in that the company ?would not gain significant new market shares and the investment takes place in a fast-growing market? (PV), according to the EC in a statement.

Meanwhile, Sunfilm in Saxony will receive about ?56M for its own thin-film project expected to create at least 380 jobs. The EU cited similar policy conditions for this investment, adding that the company received aid for a first production line in 2006.

Yushiro to boost output of oils for solar cells

Yushiro Chemical Industry Co. will bolster overseas production of cutting oils for silicone used in solar cells, outsourcing such work in Germany and launching its own manufacturing in China, according to the Nikkei daily.

Oils are used in solar cell production when silicone ingots are sliced into thin wafers. Yushiro’s main business is in cutting oils used in auto parts production, and though some ingredients are different for solar some aspects of production can be shared, the paper notes.

Anticipating business from European solar cell makers, the company plans to start production at a German chemicals producer as early as April, with upgrades including new equipment for making purified water for cleaning reactors. Yushiro may eventually open its own factory there based on demand.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Yushiro will spend tens of millions of yen to upgrade reactors and other equipment at a subsidiary making autoparts oils so that it too can start making oils for solar cells.

SEMI maps PV standards effort

SEMI has released a ?guidance document? for a photovoltaic standards roadmap that lists dozens of standards and guidelines it says are applicable to PV manufacturing to save costs and spark innovation.

PV manufacturing is being hotly pursued by many semiconductor equipment and materials suppliers as the next big growth engine, but the segment ?has a highly specialized and unique set of needs,? noted Dan Martin, EVP of PV business development and global standards for SEMI, in a statement.

Key areas of focus in the standards document, which was put together by ?industry stakeholders? including equipment and materials suppliers, cell and module manufacturers, and safety experts, initially include areas such as: wafer carriers and physical interfaces, chemical and gas purity, device tracking, equipment metrics, facilities, safety guidelines, silicon specifications, and process controls.

The ?Global Photovoltaic Standards Roadmap Guidance Document? also describes planned collaborations with other standards development organizations, including ASTM International and IEEE, as well as increased participation with research laboratories such as NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) in the US.

The Roadmap’s next development phase, Martin noted, will identify and establish timelines for top priority areas in PV manufacturing where new specifications, test methods, and safety guidelines can be developed to further reduce costs within cell and module manufacturing.

PV growth slowing until 2011

As is the case in many industries, the PV market will suffer from the financial meltdown (along with other restraining factors) for at least two years before experiencing markedly higher growth starting in 2011, according to a new report from NextGen Research.

Global PV installations will slow from a 35% CAGR to about 24% through 2013, with the US, Japan, an Italy driving demand while growth fades in Spain and Germany as subsidies peter out, the analysts say. Companies capable of achieving economies-of-scale due to vertical integration or low-cost and high-volume solar panel production will be best positioned, the analysts say.

Nanotubes could ?paint? photovoltaics

Using a simple chemical process, scientists at Cornell and DuPont have invented a method of preparing carbon nanotubes for suspension in a semiconducting ?ink,? which can then be printed into such thin, flexible electronics as transistors and photovoltaic materials. Carbon nanotubes are good candidates for transistors in low-cost printable electronics, but only after large quantities of them have been converted into semiconductors; when first grown in the lab, the CNTs are a tangle of semiconducting and metallic ones, and difficult to separate. The Cornell/DuPont team concentrated on a new, inexpensive way to eliminate the metallic tubes?adding fluorine-based molecules, which through a process called cycloaddition, efficiently attacked or converted the metallic nanotubes and left the semiconducting tubes alone, resulting in a batch of solely semiconducting nanotubes ready for applications such as suspension in semiconducting ink for printing.

Atomic force microscope image of carbon nanotubes before and after processing. (Source: DuPont)
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?Our work suggests that careful control of the chemical reaction enables the complete conversion of metallic tubes without the degradation of semiconducting tubes,? according to Graciela Blanchet, a research fellow at DuPont. George Malliaras, Cornell associate professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility, added that the work should lead to exploration of a wide range of devices such as novel organic photovoltaic structures. For the past several years, scientists from Cornell and DuPont have worked together on a variety of projects involving flexible electronics. The research, reported in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Science, is funded by a grant from the US Air Force for developing transistors from carbon nanotubes.

Toshiba, AU Optronics eye solar inroads

Toshiba Corp. has established a ?photovoltaic systems? division to supply large solar power generation systems, combining its systems integration know-how with existing work on high-efficiency power conditioning systems and rechargeable ion batteries. Japan’s Nikkei daily reports that the company will procure solar panels from as-yet unselected outside companies (foreign or domestic) and produce components in-house.

Meanwhile, AU Optronics, Taiwan’s biggest maker of TFT-LCD panels, says it will extend its work with display technology into a pilot line for solar-cell panels at the Central Taiwan Science Park in Taichung during this year. The Taiwan Economic News reports that the company is partnering with subsidiary Gallant Precision Machining for production of CIGS solar cells with projected initial output of 30-50MW?but the paper notes that AUO says it hasn’t decided on a particular solar tech or partners. The paper notes that rival domestic LCD firm Chi Mei Optoelectronics also is making inroads into solar, with pilot production anticipated in 1Q09 and ramping by 3Q09.

HelioVolt founder Stanbery steps down as CEO

Major executive changes at thin-film company HelioVolt?founder BJ Stanbery is stepping aside as CEO (but remain as chairman and chief strategy officer), with board member Ron Bernal stepping in as interim CEO. HelioVolt has hired Sanjeev Kumar as CFO; he formerly held the same role at Energy Conversion Devices.

In a statement, the company characterized the moves as a way to support its transition from development of its thin-film solar manufacturing process to full-scale commercial production. ?As the company continues to expand, the added skills to our management team will support our aggressive plans to manufacture and commercialize thin-film PV modules and BIPV products for global markets,? stated Stanbery.

Bernal, a partner at Sequel Ventures, has been a HelioVolt board member since 2007, and once was VP of operations for Cisco Systems’ product technology groups.