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Applied Materials Working on Slicing Solar Silicon for Less

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AMATimage1Solar panels are getting cheaper, and as prices decline, companies are looking for ways to reduce manufacturing costs to stay competitive. Here’s the latest innovation from Applied Materials (s AMAT): on Monday the chip and solar equipment maker announced two new technologies that it claims can reduce the costs of conventional crystalline-silicon-based solar.

Both of the technologies are aimed at more efficiently turning silicon ingots — the silicon slices that solar cells are made of — into wafers. The first, the Applied HCT Diamond Squarer system (see image above), uses diamond particles – instead of the usual abrasive slurry – bonded to a metallic wire core to slice silicon ingots into bricks. Applied claims the technology can cut up to one-third of the cost of producing silicon ingots, partly by using half of the electricity of a conventional slicing process, while also doubling the cutting speed, which saves manufacturers’ money. Customers such as Silicio Solar, a Spanish solar manufacturer owned by Dutch holding company Pillar Group, have tested the technology, according to the company’s press release.

AMATimage2The second technology, the Applied HCT MaxEdge wire saw, slices those silicon bricks into wafers. Using two wires, instead of just one, the wire saw is able to slice wafers thinner than with conventional technology, using less silicon per wafer.

Ken MacWilliams, a vice president in the company’s solar group, previously told me that Applied expects its wire saw to reduce wafer thickness from 200 microns in 2008 to 120 microns in 2011. The technology also reduces tension and wear on the wires, resulting in more reliability and less downtime, Applied claims. Unnamed key customers in Europe and Asia already are using the wire saw in mass production, according to the release.

The new squarer and wire saw are part of a pack of new technologies that Applied is developing to cut costs. According to a Photon Consulting report in December, new technologies could cut crystalline silicon costs more than 27 percent by 2011.

Figures like that would bring average panel manufacturing costs to $1.47 per watt, down from $2.04 per watt in December, but would still make crystalline solar more expensive than the lowest-cost thin-film solar today. Industry darling First Solar (s FSLR) reached a manufacturing cost of 87 cents per watt in the second quarter.

Of course, Applied – which also supplies thin-film equipment – is hardly the only company working to lower crystalline-silicon solar costs. Massachusetts-based startup 1366 Technologies last week announced two technologies to make multicrystalline solar cells cheaper and more efficient. And Honeywell (s HON) on Monday announced a new anti-reflective coating material that could potentially help crystalline, as well as thin film, solar panels collect more light and increase their efficiency.