Applied invests in solar-wafer maker

Chipmaking-equipment bigwig dips another toe into solar energy with $3 million investment in silicon ingot maker Solaicx.

The venture arm of equipment maker Applied Materials has invested $3 million into Solaicx, a small company trying to put a dent into the shortage of silicon for solar cells.
Single crystal silicon pull
Credit: Solaicx
Solaicx's first single crystal
silicon pull, or ingot.

Solaicx specializes in equipment for making silicon ingots, logs of pure silicon that get heated to high temperatures and then sliced like lunch meats to make silicon wafers. The silicon in the ingots must meet an extraordinarily high level of purity. As a result, producing silicon wafers for the solar industry, which subsequently can be chopped up and processed for solar cells, is a difficult and expensive process.

Since 2004, demand for solar cells has outstripped supply, causing the price of silicon to skyrocket. The shortage is not expected to end until 2008.

Solaicx, which bases its manufacturing around the Czochralski crystal-growing methodology, plans to use the investment to expand its business with a second U.S. manufacturing site scheduled to open in 2007. Solaicx claims that its process uses silicon more efficiently.

The deal also marks another move into solar for Applied, which is the world's largest manufacturer of equipment for the chip industry. Earlier this year,

By 2010, a number of solar-cell manufacturers will be running solar plants with 10 production lines, and each production line will be capable of squeezing out 100 megawatts worth of solar cells a year, Charlie Gay, vice president and general manager of Applied's Solar Business Group, said in a meeting with reporters earlier this fall.

That comes to 1,000 megawatts a year per factory, which is about how much electricity gets produced by a coal or nuclear plant, he said. Build a megasize solar factory, therefore, and you don't have to build a coal-fired power plant. Put another way, the entire output of solar cells made in 1980 could be produced in a day in one of these plants.

These factories will also consume a lot of silicon. Gay estimated that each watt of power will require 7 grams of silicon, which means that each 1,000-megawatt plant will need 7,000 tons of processed silicon a year.

Solar cells are essentially semiconductors--they convey electrons from one place to another--so Applied hopes to use its expertise in producing machines that can sputter fine metallic mists onto silicon wafers toward making chips for the solar business.

While processes for making chips and solar cells are somewhat similar, the economics of the two fields are different. Chipmakers require cutting-edge equipment. Single pieces of chip-manufacturing equipment can run into the millions of dollars. If Intel, for instance, says it plans to spend $3 billion on building fabs, almost all of that money goes into machines produced by Nikon, Applied, ASML and Novellus Systems.

While a single wafer of finished semiconductors may be worth several thousand dollars, a wafer of solar cells isn't worth nearly as much. Solar manufacturing is more concerned with producing large volumes of wafers; manufacturers do not have to stay on the cutting edge, as do chipmakers.

Despite the shortage of solar chips, the price of solar technology has been declining and should continue to do so, once large-megawatt plants are running. In 1980, a solar panel cost about $21 per watt, according to Gay. (That is, each watt produced from the panel would cost about $21 each over the life of the panel.) Now it's about $2.70 per watt.

By 2010, crystalline silicon solar cells will sell for about $1.25 to $1.50 per watt, while thin-film solar cells--made of things like amorphous silicon or copper indium gallium selenium--will sell for 90 cents to $1.30 per watt. The thin-film cells, however, will be less efficient.

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