At least three big-name semiconductor makers – IBM, Intel, and National Semiconductor — are getting into the solar-cell or PV-manufacturing-equipment market.
Tokyo Ohka Kogyo Co. Ltd. and IBM say they are collaborating on processes, materials, and equipment suitable for producing CIGS (copper-indiumgallium- aelenide) solar-cell modules. CIGS thin-film technology is thought to have great promise for reducing the overall cost of solar power.
In this regard, IBM Research has developed new, nonvacuum, manufacturing processes for CIGS solar cells. It is targeting efficiencies of around 15% and higher for the thin-film cells. Current thin-film product efficiencies vary from around six to less than 12%. TOK will bring expertise in equipment design and manufacture to the deal.
Thin-film CIGS cells can be 100 thinner than silicon-wafer cells, can be deposited on inexpensive glass substrates, and thus can cost correspondingly less. Thin-film solar cells can also be arranged on a flexible backing. This makes them candidates for mounting on the tops and sides of buildings, tinted windows, and other surfaces. Manufacturing involves “printing” cell material onto a rolled backing of a flexible module, or a glass plate, eliminating many of the high-energy and equipment-intensive processes typical of conventional photovoltaic manufacturing.
IBM Research into PV concentrates on four main areas: using current technologies to develop cheaper and more-efficient silicon solar cells, developing new thin-film PV devices, concentrator photovoltaics, and future-generation photovoltaic architectures based upon nanostructures such as semiconductor quantum dots and nanowires.
Also entering the PV area is chipmaker Intel Corp. The firm is spinning off an independent company called SpectraWatt Inc. Intel is putting a $50 million investment in SpectraWatt and is joined by Cogentrix Energy LLC, an independent power producer; PCG Clean Energy and Technology Fund, an investment company; and Solon AG, a German solar-power company.
SpectraWatt will manufacture and supply photovoltaic cells to solar-module makers. In addition to focusing on advanced solar-cell technologies, the company will concentrate development efforts on improving manufacturing processes and capabilities to reduce the cost of photovoltaic-energy generation. SpectraWatt expects to break ground on its manufacturing and advanced technology development facility in Oregon later this year and expects to ship its first products by mid-2009.
Finally, National Semiconductor discussed in general terms its plans for PV during a recent earnings call. In the call transcript as recorded by the Web site Seeking Alpha (seekingalpha.com), company officials said National’s first major output in PV will be unveiled this summer. National claims its SolarMagic technology will dramatically improve the efficiency of solar panels, even in shaded conditions, an innovation made possible by utilizing the company’s analog PowerWise power-management circuits.
“We’ve made some pretty significant gains in for the photovoltaic technology,” said officials on the call. “We are now entering a phase of field trials ... there is about a six-month certification process with UL and BDE and we have high hopes that we’ll have smooth sailing through them.”
National says it considers the solar field to be wide open, because only “0.4% (of rooftops) in Northern California have panels. If you contrast that with Germany where their subsidies are a lot higher and much more friendly, they’ve already covered 8% of the rooftops ... Clearly the potential is there.”
Judging by comments on the earnings call, National’s plans involve ways of boosting solar-panel efficiency. “One of the things that has held back the expansion is that there is a lengthy time to pay back because the efficiency of these rays tend to get perturbed by many, many things, including aging, clouds, and even bird poop,” said National officials. “No, we haven’t invented an electronic bird pooper scooper but we have done something that we think is significant in the area of improving efficiencies and we will just have to let that play out. We will let our partners, we’re in field trial, tell us if they agree with us.”