Twin Creeks Technologies Inc., a closely held maker of solar manufacturing equipment, has developed machinery that can cut by 90 percent the amount of silicon needed to make panels, increasing the margins of producers, according to its chief executive officer.
The company’s equipment produces silicon wafers that are one-tenth the thickness of conventional ones, which lowers costs because more products are made with less material, CEO Siva Sivaram said in an interview in San Francisco.
The company’s machines, and its processes for handling extra-thin wafers, could offer manufacturers a way to boost margins after a global glut caused solar panel prices to fall by 50 percent last year, Sivaram said. The price decline has forced Solyndra LLC into bankruptcy, prompted SunPower Corp. to seek a buyout and reduced margins of manufacturers led by Suntech Power Holdings Co. and First Solar Inc. (FSLR)
Twin Creeks expects to improve manufacturing in solar similar to the way efficiency gains in memory chip production have preserved margins in that industry, according to Sivaram. “In the memory industry year after year after year the price drops 50 percent, but everybody still makes money, and the people who make the most are the equipment guys,” he said.
“What we have done is located the weakness, it’s materials-focused, and introduced a completely disruptive technology,” Sivaram said.
The company’s proprietary machine, called the Hyperion, eliminates the need for 52 pieces of equipment typically required to make wafers, he said. “Kill the whole thing and replace it with Hyperions,” Sivaram said. “That’s really what we want to do.”
Hyperions use a technology Twin Creeks calls “proton induced exfoliation” to inject hydrogen ions at high voltage into wafers. The protons create “microcracks” that cause thin layers to peel off at about 20 microns (0.02 millimeters) in thickness when the wafers are heated later in a furnace, Sivaram said. Typical wafers are about ten times as thick, he said.
Hyperions could halve the cost of a typical 1-gigawatt cell production line, even though they’re “expensive,” he said, without giving the exact selling price.
Each Hyperion can produce about 6 megawatts of wafers, so about 16 machines would be needed for a 100-megawatt production line, he said.
Panels made from Twin Creeks’ wafers have similar power- conversion efficiencies of conventional ones though they’re thin enough to be flexible like thin-film products made by companies such as MiaSole Inc. and SoloPower Inc., which use materials other than silicon, according to Sivaram.
“What you have is the world’s first flexible single- crystal silicon,” he said. The flexibility of the wafers lowers costs further because bendable packaging can be used for cells and panels, instead of glass or aluminum, Twin Creeks said today in a statement.
Twin Creeks, based in San Jose, California, is backed by about $93 million in venture capital from Crosslink Capital Inc., Benchmark Capital, DAG Ventures LLC, Artis Capital Management LP and Taiwan-based Global Strategic Investment Fund, Sivaram said.
The company completed a plant in Mississippi in May 2011 that “is intended as a working laboratory for all of our customers,” Sivaram said.
The site has two Hyperion machines and a production line capable of making 25 megawatts of solar cells a year. There is space to expand to 100 megawatts a year if a partner chose to do so, Sivaram said.
Since the company’s founding in 2008, it has refocused on providing capital equipment instead of making panels.
“I sell capital equipment,” Sivaram said. “I want to be able to sell it to every cell and panel maker in the world, so I’m not the one laying out the last penny on the margin and fighting for panel and cell price,” he said.
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