Oerlikon Solar, born out of Oerlikon’s coating and vacuum businesses, today unveiled its newest technology, “Amorph High Performance,” which allows manufacturers using Oerlikon equipment to add a zinc oxide layer to their thin-film product, boosting efficiency by nearly a percentage point while also increasing fab capacity by 50 percent.
Oerlikon doesn’t make the actual cells, instead it sells the manufacturing equipment to customers like Ersol and Schott Solar, who then make branded solar products. Applied Materials has the same business model, and Sharp formed a joint venture with chip equipment maker Tokyo Electron to make thin-film fab lines starting in 2009. Both are competitors of Oerlikon’s.
The idea is that the equipment manufacturers will develop better thin-film solar fabrication methods, while the manufacturers use the equipment to make the product. “More and more you’re going to see an ‘Intel-inside’ approach to thin-film production,” Chris O’Brien, Oerlikon’s head of market development in North America, tells us. Just as Intel makes the chip but doesn’t sell the computer, Oerlikon makes the solar fab line but doesn’t sell the panels.
Today’s announcement is part of the company’s road map for delivering equipment that can produce solar cells for $1 per watt by 2010, as well as making cells that have a 10 percent efficiency. Oerlikon currently has deployed 130 megawatts worth of fabrication lines to customers who are making cells with 6.5 percent efficiency. By the end of 2008 that capacity will exceed 300 megawatts, O’Brien said.
Oerlikon currently has a factory in Switzerland and a supply chain in Singapore, but O’Brien says that a supply chain for North America will be coming in 2009. “Utilities and states with Renewable Portfolio Standards will be big markets,” O’Brien said.
The thin-film solar space has been attracting increasingly large manufacturing players that can leverage their backgrounds in producing electronics and semiconductors. Oerlikon, which also makes industrial manufacturing equipment for industries like textiles and vacuum systems, formed its own dedicated solar division in 2007. Meanwhile, Japanese electronics giant Sharp ambitiously claimed that it would secure half of the thin-film solar market by 2012.
Oerlikon’s O’Brien doesn’t seem worried about the competition. “The market opportunity will dwarf the capacity that is coming online,” he says. “Particularly in the U.S. with the recently enacted 30 percent tax credit for the next eight years, you’ll see rapidly accelerating demand.”