Big Blue to Take on Thin-Film Solar

IBM, with years of experience designing chips and LCD displays, is jumping into the solar sector — but not just silicon-based solar. Big Blue has announced a new joint effort with chip gear maker Tokyo Ohka Kogyo to develop thin-film solar panels based on CIGS (Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide) material. The duo say their panels will be cheaper and easier-to-install than the thin film solar panels currently available.

This is the same technology cleantech darling Nanosolar, Heliovolt and many other thin-film startups have been working on and racing to scale up. IBM’s entrance into a market that has largely been made up of startup companies will definitely shake things up. It has taken many of these startups years and a lot of funding to get their technology market. And given IBM and Tokyo Ohka Kogyo plan to license their technology to third party manufacturers, large traditional solar companies could feel more comfortable turning to the likes of IBM than a smaller valley-funded startup to get into the thin film market.

IBM hasn’t attached any production dates or funding estimates to its new research program. Overall IBM’s solar program has four research areas: silicon-based solar, thin-film solar, solar concentrators and next-gen solar using nanostructures like quantum dots. Last month IBM claimed a breakthrough in the lab for its concentrated photovoltaic research.

It’s not clear exactly how IBM will use all of this solar technology yet. Licensing the IP to large manufacturers will eliminate the risk and funding needed to produce and distribute the solar tech themselves. One thing is clear solar startups will likely be seeing more and more well-funded competition from large established companies as the global thin film solar market takes off.

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