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Applied aims for bigger slice of solar market

Posted: 18 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar cell? solar market? photovoltaic? PV module?

Continuing its drive into alternative energy, Applied Materials Inc. has rolled out a new production system for solar fabs that claims to reduce wafer slicing costs.

The Applied HCT MaxEdge is a wire saw, which is one of the critical pieces of standalone 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 120?m and below in terms of thickness.

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

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 percent, Ahmad said. It also drives down the cost of manufacturing PV cells by up to $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 $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 $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 $330 million in cash, privately-held Italian group Baccini SpA. Baccini is a specialist supplier of automated metallization 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 ownand competitivetools for select solar-panel makers. Applied's so-called SunFab Solar Module Production Line enables customers to manufacture 5.7m? 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 $160 million in 2007, to $800 million in 2008.

Market ups and downs
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 $16 billion in 2008, according to Gartner Inc. The firm estimated that the solar business will decrease by 1 percent in 2009. On a gigawatt basis, the solar market will hit 6.4GW in 2009, up 24 percent from 2008, according to the firm.

Robert Stone, an analyst with Cowen and Co., has recently cut his estimates for various solar cell makers amid the credit crunch and falling average selling prices for panels. Cowen cut its estimates for Evergreen, SunPower, Suntech and Trina Solar.

The credit crunch has hit solar demand. "Several contacts mentioned some improvement in interest by banks and credit costs moving back toward pre-crisis levels (thanks to low rates). However, credit spreads appear to vary by brand of module and non-branded product may not be bankable, regardless of lower ASPs," Stone said in a recent report.

It's a mixed picture on the module and polysilicon fronts. Module ASPs appear to be falling. And for some time, polysilicon, the key material used in making solar cells, was in short supply. Now, there appears to be ample supply for polysilicon, thereby driving product prices down.

"Module prices appear to range from $2 to $2.50, with top-tier Chinese brands at about $2.20 and European/international brands enjoying a premium," Stone said.

"Despite a weak Q1, spot poly prices seem to be holding about $135 to $150/kg. However, prices could fall toward $100 as more capacity ramps during the year," he said. "Wafer prices should fall faster than module ASPs, because silicon is coming down faster than cell and module conversion costs. This situation should help cell/module companies maintain positive gross margins, but increases execution risk and potential for more inventory write-downs."

Not long ago, spot prices for polysilicon were about $400/kg. Right now, Applied believes that contract prices for polysilicon are about $55/kg.

As a result of these and other trends, the solar equipment market is projected to slow and see significant consolidation in 2009, according to VLSI Research. The solar cell and module manufacturing equipment market reached a value of $4.4 billion in 2008. Growth in the market is expected to slow to 8 percent in 2009, according to the firm.

Still, there are new solar cell players entering the fray, creating new opportunities for equipment makers, Applied's Ahmad said. To boost its efforts, the company is expanding into the solar wafer slicing business.

Higher output, load capacity
Today, Applied claims to be the leader in the arena. Its previous-generation wire saw, the B5, is an "industry standard" with some 500 tools installed in the market, Ahmad said.

The B5 makes use of a single belt wire cutting system. In comparison, the MaxEdge features a module that consists of two independently-controlled belts or cutting wires. The system is driven by four direct drive motors. The increased power enables 20m/s cutting speeds, without sacrificing throughput.

As a result, the new system can enable higher throughput and load capacity, while lowering overall footprint by 30 percent. Compared to the B5, the MaxEdge can boost load capacity by up to 45 percent and increase output by 50 percent.

Overall, the machine enables thinner wafers at higher speeds. By making thinner wafers, solar cell makers can reduce the amount of silicon per wafer and lower the cost-per-wafer of solar electricity, according to Applied.

The tool also features a new wire guide design with zero degree angle in order to reduce wire breakage. It also has low-inertia pulleys and a tension system to keep wires uniform during cuts.

Applied has shipped the tool to key beta site customers.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times





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