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Applied seeks lead in solar

Posted: 18 Mar 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar fabs  wafer slicing costs  SunFab  solar business 

Continuing its push into alternative energy, Applied Materials Inc. has introduced a new production system for solar fabs that claims to trim down wafer slicing costs.

The Applied HCT MaxEdge is a wire saw, which is one of the critical pieces of stand-alone equipment in the solar fab. Resembling the operations of a sophisticated, high-speed belt saw, the new system slices solar ingots into ultrathin wafers down to 120µm and below in terms of thickness.

The MaxEdge has demonstrated ultrathin wafers down to 80µm. Today's mainstream solar wafers have thicknesses ranging from 200- to 160µm.

The solar wafer is one of the most expensive parts of the crystalline-based photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing flow. The idea is to slice thinner wafers for good reason. "You want to reduce your manufacturing costs," said Farhan Ahmad, global product manager for the Precision Wafering Systems unit at Applied.

Based on the first dual-wire cutting management system, the system lowers wafer slicing costs by 5 to 10 per cent, Ahmad said. It also drives down the cost of manufacturing PV cells by up to Rs.8.95 ($0.18) per watt, he added.

Applied is also making a major push into the booming solar gear market. In 2006, the company jumped into the solar business, by buying Applied Films Corp. for Rs.2,306.97 crore ($464 million). Applied Films supplies thin-film deposition equipment for making flat-panel displays, solar cells, flexible electronics and energy-efficient glass.

In 2007, the company acquired Switzerland's HCT Shaping Systems SA for about Rs.2,361.66 crore ($475 million). HCT sells wire saw systems for the production of wafers based on crystalline silicon (c-Si) substrates.

Then, in the same year, Applied extended its investments in companies making equipment for the solar cell industry and bought, for Rs.1,640.73 crore ($330 million) in cash, privately-held Italian group Baccini SpA. Baccini is a specialist supplier of automated metallisation and test systems for making c-Si PV cells.

Applied also provides "turnkey" services in the solar-cell industry, where the equipment giant will procure its own—and competitive—tools for select solar-panel makers. Applied's so-called SunFab Solar Module Production Line enables customers to manufacture 5.7m² thin-film silicon PV modules.

The company has put significant resources behind its SunFab efforts, but reports have surfaced that Applied has experienced some glitches with the technology. Still, the overall investments in solar have begun to pay off for Applied. Amid a downturn in its semiconductor equipment business, Applied has seen its solar tool sales jump from zero in 2006, to Rs.795.51 crore ($160 million) in 2007, to Rs.3,977.54 crore ($800 million) in 2008.

Market forecasts
Recently, VLSI Research Inc. named Applied as the world's largest supplier of PV cell manufacturing equipment in 2008. But on the other hand, the overall solar market is slowing, thanks in part to the worldwide financial crisis.

The overall PV market hit Rs.79,550.70 crore ($16 billion) in 2008, according to Gartner Inc. The firm estimated that the solar business will decrease by 1 per cent in 2009. On a gigawatt basis, the solar market will hit 6.4GW in 2009, up 24 per cent from 2008, according to the firm.

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