Intermolecular making a play for PV applications

Debra Vogler, senior technical editor, Photovoltaics World

March 23, 2009 – Intermolecular, Inc. recently announced that a former solar exec from Applied Materials, Craig Hunter, has joined the company as VP and GM of its solar business group. Hunter founded and managed Applied’s thin-film solar business and was instrumental in formulating the strategy for the company’s SunFab thin-film line.

A major task for the new exec is to leverage Intermolecular’s High-Productivity Combinatorial (HPC) technology, which has already been used to gain R&D efficiencies in the semiconductor industry, and apply it to solar PV research.

The solar energy sector represents a strategic growth opportunity for Intermolecular — the company cites a Crosslink Capital projection of a 53% CAGR from 2008-2012 in the solar sector, shared at the 2009 SEMI Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS). New materials innovation and discovery are key drivers for advancements in energy conversion efficiency and cost reduction for solar panels.

“The HPC platform is a disruptive technology for boosting R&D in semiconductor applications,” Intermolecular’s CEO, David Lazovsky, told PV World. “We’re designing risk out of the process [of materials R&D].” The company is confident about the ability of its technology to transfer directly over to solar applications. “The manufacturing technologies currently in production for PV applications are the same used in the semiconductor industry,” he said. “The lines between semiconductor process technology and solar technology have not just blurred, they’ve disappeared.”

The solar industry now faces a situation where supply is outpacing demand, which is putting a lot of pressure on manufacturers. “Suddenly, a rising tide is not lifting all boats,” and companies have to differentiate themselves based on technical capabilities, Hunter said. Intermolecular’s HPC technology, he noted, can accelerate that differentiation as well as the solar roadmap that requires quickly getting solar conversion efficiencies up and manufacturing costs down.

One area that could immediately benefit from applying HPC to solar manufacturing is optimizing surface morphology — i.e., texturing a wafer, to allow light to be bounced and bent to ensure maximum absorption. Other challenges that could potentially benefit include optimizing anti-reflective coatings (to reduce reflection) and minimizing recombination losses that occur in the solar cell itself. The company expects its HPC technology to be applicable to crystalline silicon, thin-film silicon, and other types of solar cells, (e.g., CIGS, CdTe).

Using HPC technology to address the challenge of texturing ZnO:Al films, Intermolecular ran >500 process experiments and complete >8000 characterization sets in just 3 weeks. Shown above are just a few of the AFM images with variability in shape and size of the textured features. (Source: Intermolecular)
Click here to expand

Next on Intermolecular’s PV agenda is identifying areas within the recently passed US stimulus package in which the company can participate, and the company is currently talking with potential partners to leverage stimulus funding, Lazovsky told PV World. A key factor, however, will be how PV industry consortia are defined. Unlike the semiconductor industry which includes consortia such as SEMATECH, IMEC, and Selete, “consortia in the solar sector are not as well-established…for presenting immediate opportunities for direct engagement,” he explained. Booming growth in the solar industry the past five or so years has been a kind of “a rising tide lifts all boats” period, so “there wasn’t the need for consolidation, creation of alliances, etc.,” he noted. “What you’re seeing now in the last several months already, industry structure is starting to be re-examined and people are starting to take a serious look at those issues, but it won’t play out overnight, it will take several years for that to occur.”

The incredible growth also has been spurred by attractive incentives by the German and Spanish governments. “You had a period where supply couldn’t keep up with demand,” Hunter told PV World. “That, coupled with the low barriers to entry for plain vanilla thin-film and crystalline silicon technologies, meant that a lot of people could jump into the industry by buying equipment or turnkey equipment lines, and everybody could sell out whatever they could make.” This situation meant there was no real need to develop the kind of industry discipline such as in the semiconductor industry. “So it’s really the early days…I think you’ll see that development in the coming years.” (There are opportunities, he thinks, to initiate such industry groups now among relevant players — particularly in the US, “where the ROI of stimulus dollars can be maximized, not just for advancements of alternative energy technologies, but also for general economic stimulus and job creation.”) — D.V.

This article was originally published by Photovoltaics World.


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