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Oerlikon’s Mission: Making Silicon Thin Film Solar Bankable

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Can solar module producer Oerlikon inject new enthusiasm into amorphous silicon thin film technology, a method of making thin layers of solar material from silicon and which until now has struggled to compete in cost and efficiency? The Swiss company hopes to do so with the launch Tuesday of a new line of factory equipment that it says can make both low cost and higher efficiency solar panels.

The new equipment will be able to cut solar module production costs to 70 cents per watt, from the roughly $1 per watt that can be achieved today from the company’s existing line, said Chris O’Brien, head of North American marketing for Oerlikon. The stabilized efficiency of the new 143-watt panels will achieve 10 percent, up from around 9 percent with the older line. The company expects its customers will be rolling out new panels with a lower production cost and higher efficiency in 2012.

Stabilized efficiency is an industry standard for labeling an amorphous silicon panel’s efficiency (and power rating), and it refers to the efficiency and power a panel could yield after it’s been exposed to the sun for 1,000 hours. Amorphous silicon material, by its nature, loses some of its ability to convert sunlight into electricity quickly during an initial period.

“We are bullish on the thin film technology,” O’Brien said. “We think this set of announcements will go a long way to positioning Oerlikon Solar’s customers as among the low-cost leaders in the industry in 2012 time frame.”

In comparison, First Solar’s (s FSLR) cadmium telluride solar panels have lower power ratings but can already achieve a higher average efficiency of 11.2 percent and a manufacturing cost of 76 cents per watt.

Oerlikon is rolling out the new equipment at a time when amorphous-silicon technology still seems a dicey bet. Many startups have invested heavily by buying a full-line of equipment from suppliers such Oerlikon, but the equipment can only make solar panels with efficiencies lower than most of the competing products on the market.

It didn’t help that its once fierce competitor, Applied Materials, announced its exit from the thin-film business in July. The difficulties of raising money to buy factory equipment during recession, competition from crystalline silicon solar panel makers and a lower-than-expected growth in the utility market were to blame, said Applied’s CEO, Mike Splinter, at the time. Some of Applied’s customers have struggled mightily. The insolvency proceedings for Signet Solar’s German operations began last week. Another Applied customers, SunFilm, filed for insolvency in Germany earlier this year. Suntech Power recently abandoned its ambition to produce amorphous silicon thin films with Applied’s machines.

It’s now up to the remaining factory equipment developers such as Oerlikon and ULVAC in Japan – as well as their customers – to proselytize the benefits of amorphous silicon thin films. It helps that veteran solar players Sharp and Kaneka are both believers and have continued to invest in this technology. Kaneka announced the completion of a new factory in June.

Oerlikon made several technology improvements to the new line, which produces solar panels with a layer of amorphous silicon and another layer of microcrystalline silicon. The new tools make it possible to deposit the silicon layers that are 30 percent thinner, a process that requires less material, speeds up the production rate and leads to the efficiency boost, O’Brien said. The company also is promoting a new sheet that protects the backside of the solar cells, claiming that the backsheet, by DuPont, can reflect unused light back to the silicon layers.

The equipment also comes with a laser tool that can cut thinner lines, leaving more cell areas intact to generate electricity. The laser equipment is what patterns and connects the cells, and the lines also act as arteries to move electrons out of them.

The new laser tool also can cut the lines in a way that reduces the voltage of each solar panel from 132-volt to 48-volt. Oerlikon’s customers asked for this change because installers want to be able string more panels per inverter, O’Brien said. Oerlikon can start shipping new equipment next year, and customers will be able to start mass production in 2012.

The company also announced that it worked with Corning to develop an 11.9 percent cell in the lab, a stabilized efficiency that has been verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Getting the technology out of the lab into commercial production will take time.

Many of Oerlikon’s customers are China, Taiwan and Europe, including Astronergy, Tianwei SolarFilms and Gadir Solar. Oerlikon announced its first U.S. customer, Clairvoyant Energy, last November, and said at the time that Clairvoyant planned to start production in late 2011.

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