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  • Here Comes the Sun

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2008
Regarding the Intersolar North America and Semicon West shows, a Dickens paraphrase is appropriate. These are the best of times and the worst of times.

Hank Hogan

The shows ran concurrently and in the same convention center in San Francisco in July. The worst of times are currently found in the traditional semiconductor equipment market. According to projections released by the equipment and materials trade group SEMI, that market will decline 20 percent in 2008 but rebound with 13 and 6 percent growth in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The result is that the equipment market is forecast to be slightly smaller in 2010 than in 2007, $41.0 vs. $42.8 billion.

For the best of times, consider photovoltaics. The industry has posted a more than 30 percent compound annual growth rate for years, and there is still plenty of room to expand. Christopher O’Brien is head of market development for Oerlikon Solar of Trübbach, Switzerland, a company that provides fully automated end-to-end production lines for manufacturing thin-film silicon solar modules. In a panel discussion, he noted that the photovoltaics market today represents tens of billions of dollars.

“But that only represents 0.1 percent of the electricity generated worldwide,” he pointed out.

Growing to the point where photovoltaics is a substantial part of the total market can be done only by making solar a competitive source.

Bob Wong, chairman of the Taiwan-based CMC Magnetics Corp., said the company’s subsidiary Sunwell is ramping up to produce a gigawatt of solar capacity annually and expects the cost per watt to fall by 5 to 10 percent a year. Part of the reduction will be the result of cutting the cost of manufacturing and part from increased efficiency.

Equipment makers are hoping that the expertise developed for the semiconductor and flat panel industries can pay off in photovoltaics. The solar unit of equipment supplier Applied Materials showcased one solution, a 5.7-m-on-a-side thin-film photovoltaic module that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company says will cut installation cost considerably. Air Liquide of Paris, a gas and materials supplier, offers a turnkey business to help photovoltaics manufacturers grow from pilot to full production.

However, despite the gloomy outlook, equipment makers continue to innovate for the semiconductor industry. For example, the trend is to stack chips atop one another because incorporating the third dimension boosts performance while reducing size.

Such stacks require thin silicon, and traditional dicing techniques can have problems with thin wafers. Some manufacturers have turned to laser-based methods to separate chips from one another. Electro Scientific Industries Inc. of Portland, Ore., uses picosecond lasers in its system. Jenoptik of Jena, Germany, uses another approach. Its equipment fires a laser to heat up the silicon and uses a jet to cool it, with the hot and cool zones close to one another. The result is that a point defect on the edge of the wafer can be driven across it, cleaving the silicon cleanly.

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