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The sun shines for semiconductor equipment and material makers: how the electronics industry benefits from alternative energy development.

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Alternative energy development, be it to decrease fossil fuels use and the subsequent global warming or simply to reduce consumption of (high-priced) energy, benefits the electronics industry. Alternative energy developments include expanded production of solar panels. Companies participating in these areas are seeing an increase in business for existing equipment and materials used in the semiconductor industry. There are also opportunities to introduce materials and equipment.

The use of solar power is expected to grow. The German government has for years offered incentives for solar power installation, as have other countries. In the U.S., a number of local and state governments also offer incentives for solar energy use. Countries such as Japan and Germany have funded solar energy research for many years. In Japan, the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (MITI) funded solar cells research and development as part of the Sunshine Project focusing on alternative energy development. Recent activities of the New Energy Development Organization have also been aimed at alternative energy.

Today Japanese companies such as Sharp are the world's top producers of solar cells. (1) Other Japanese solar cell producers include Kaneka, Kyocera, Sanyo and Mitsubishi. German producers include Q-Cell, Schott Solar Group and Solarworld. Companies in Taiwan such as Motech, United Microelectronics Corp. and PowerChip Semiconductor have established solar cell manufacturing facilities. In mainland China, producers include Suntech and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. Other producers include BP Solar Group (Australia), Isofoton (Spain) and Shell Solar Group.

These companies continue to expand solar cell production. Cypress Semiconductor, a major U.S. solar cell maker, plans to establish a facility in India. (2) Solarworld will open a solar cell factory in Hillsboro, OR.

In 2006, 1.74 MW of solar cells were installed, surging 19% from a year earlier, good for revenue of more than $6.5 billion, according to a study published by Solarbuzz. (3) According to research firm PV Energy Systems Inc., global output of solar cells in 2005 produced the equivalent of roughly 1,700 MW of power--the equivalent of a standard conventional power plant with two or three turbines. This was more than six times the figure in 2000. (4)

Techcet Group ( estimates the world market for solar cell process materials to be about $50 billion in 2007, growing at an average rate of 20% per year. More than 50% of the annual material spent is from assembly materials; the remainder is from substrates and front-end process materials. New substrate materials and process materials are expected to emerge over the next several years that should provide a boost to annual revenues.


Leveraging existing equipment. Photovoltaics production uses basically the same equipment as used in production of silicon wafers. Therefore, as solar cell production grows, so do equipment makers' revenues. Oerlikon (formerly called Unaxis, Balzers) is providing equipment for large thin film silicon solar modules. This includes deposition of transparent conducting front and back contacts, deposition of photovoltaic thin films converting light into electrical energy, and laser patterning to generate the serially connected cells. New production equipment is also increasingly used in this market. Companies such as Newport offer equipment to scribe or dice photovoltaic structures or provide laser edge isolation, laser drilling, or other laser machining. Synova and Xsil offer laser equipment for dicing solar panels. Inspection is an increasingly important part of the process, and companies such as ICOS offer inspection equipment used in various parts of the process (Figure 1).

Major equipment makers such as Applied Materials have also created a good business producing solar cell equipment and are looking to new types of solar cell production. In 2006 AMAT purchased Applied Films, which makes thin-film deposition equipment and is focused on solar cell production based on glass instead of silicon.

New materials for solar. Today's solar panels are based on polycrystalline silicon cells. However, new materials are being developed, including III-V materials and glass. Glass-based cells, made by sandwiching ultra-thin layers of materials between two sheets of glass, accounted for only about 10% of the 1.74 MW of solar capacity installed in 2006.

Dai Nippon Printing, Sharp, Aisin Seiki and Fujikura have developed film-type dye-sensitized solar cells. The panels are thin and lightweight and can be installed on roofs of houses or cars.

Solar power manufacturer Nanosolar has been developing technology to roll-print solar cells that require only 1/100 as thick an absorber as a silicon-wafer cell, while still delivering similar performance and durability. A big part of the breakthrough was an ink composed of the semiconductor material copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGD) that could be printed in a thin film on the cell substrate. (5)

Showa Shell Sekiyu sells solar cells fabricated from a metallic compound called copper-indium-diselenide (CIS). The CIS compound is simply coated in a thin film of several microns on a sheet of glass, with transparent electrodes and other circuitry then coated on top of the structure. Light striking the CIS layer releases electrons that migrate upward to the electrodes, from which they are carried away as electric current.

Ed.: See online version for list of references.

E. Jan Vardaman is president of TechSearch International (; Her column appears bimonthly.

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Title Annotation:On the Forefront
Comment:The sun shines for semiconductor equipment and material makers: how the electronics industry benefits from alternative energy development.(On the Forefront)
Author:Vardaman, E. Jan
Publication:Circuits Assembly
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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