SEMICON West, Day 3: Advancement in LED, exec perspectives, solar observations

July 15, 2011 – Welcome to our third roundup of observations from SEMICON West 2011; we’ll be looking at LED technology and executive opinions on big-picture industry issues, and adding a few observations about the state of play in the solar market.

SEMICON West 2011
Day 1: SOI vs. FinFET, ReRAM vs. 3D NAND, and lots of video data
Day 2: A lithography-rich day
Day 3: Advancement in LED, exec perspectives, solar observations

LED improvements

The LED session at the TechXPOT venue was, like many of the other TechXPOT sessions, very well attended, with standing-room crowds, drawn by the prospect of an emerging semiconductor market with the potential to generate massive unit sales in the general lighting sector. Before this can happen on a mass scale, however, a steep reduction is needed in cost per lumen through a combination of performance boosts and manufacturing cost reduction. Speakers at the session reported progress in key areas, including efficiency, binning, epitaxy, manufacturing processes, and metrology.

On the performance side, the consensus is that efficiency for warm-light LEDs will increase from 100 lm/W today to 200 lm/W by 2020. An increase in input drive current from 350mA to 2A is one part of this process; it will also facilitate higher-power LEDs.

Unfortunately, nitride LEDs are plagued by the "droop" issue — at high operating currents, efficiency decreases. The origin of droop is still hotly debated, with the two leading hypotheses being carrier leakage and Auger recombination. The solution is tricky, as it requires growth of LEDs along non-polar or semi-polar crystal orientations (an area of active development), or reduction of carrier density in the active region by increasing the thickness of the quantum wells, which is not practical for high-power LEDs.

In the manufacturing cost arena, the primary focus in recent years has been on moving to larger wafers, reducing cost of ownership on front-end epitaxy, and improving overall packaged LED binning yields. The shift to 150mm substrates is expected to happen in under four years, compared to more than a decade for the 50mm-to-100mm transition. Top-tier LED companies are also eyeing larger substrates, but performance and yield remain challenging due to lattice and thermal mismatch between gallium nitride and silicon.

An interesting equipment trend is the race to make bigger, more efficient, MOCVD tools for nitride LEDs. Veeco has introduced the first production cluster tool for LEDs, while Aixtron recently announced a new record for wafer capacity (16 100mm wafers) for its Circus platform. Other approaches to reduce manufacturing cost, such as inline yield management and thin substrate handling during laser lift-off, are also being adopted.

Execs speak: Evolving adoption, favorite innovations

Wednesday afternoon’s Executive Summit, moderated by SEMI’s semiconductor business president Jonathan Davis, provided some interesting perspectives from top-level management.

Several panelists commented on evolving patterns of electronics consumption. Steve Newberry, president and CEO of Lam Research, noted that portable electronics are quickly becoming a necessity and not a luxury; Rick Wallace, his counterpart at KLA-Tencor, said he is bullish about the middle class using much more of its disposable income on electronics, and also about some 2 billion new customers who will want smart phones, music players, and other portable devices. Terry Brewer, founder and president of Brewer Scientific, commented on the importance of better user interfaces in this evolution, with Apple’s growth and success being testimony to this. (Davis had earlier pointed out that Apple recently became the largest IC buyer in the world, to the tune of $17.5 billion annually.)

When the topic turned to favorite innovations of the past year, Doug Neugold, chairman, CEO and president of ATMI, said he is getting a kick out of redeploying technology (such as material selectivity solutions for advanced ICs) towards handling electronic waste issues, like selective removal and recovery of metals from waste PC boards. Williams cited the use of laser-enhanced plasma in EUV illumination sources to create brightness five to ten times that of the sun.

Solar pricing, installation bottleneck, utility-scale concerns

Speaking of solar matters, there’s been at lot of talk on the show floor about plunging prices on solar modules, with reports of $1.20 to $1.30/watt or even less becoming common. While lower prices are in general a good thing, these levels (driven by a combination of declining demand in Europe due to fewer subsidies and a surge in manufacturing) are making life miserable for some in the startup community who had been planning on higher revenues.

Some are speculating that solar prices could become an international trade issue, with concerns that the large number of new producers in China may be dumping products below cost.

Another interesting aspect is that installation has become a bottleneck in the residential and commercial sectors; potential US demand at these lower prices cannot be fully realized given a general shortage of "boots-on-the-ground" experienced marketing and sales personnel generating an order pipeline. In part because of this, installers have not had to lower their prices despite lower module costs, so margins have improved. We talked to one Southern California installer who noted that a few months ago, he couldn’t get his calls returned when he wanted to buy panels; today, panel suppliers are calling him.

Utility-scale installations are a another challenge, however; financing and permitting remain huge issues, and the returns are still not broadly compelling at all-in costs of $3/watt or more when financial costs are included. Bankability is a much greater issue in this end of the market, while efficiency is top-of-mind in residential and commercial.

It will be interesting to see how the solar industry matures and if it evolves in a similar manner to what we have seen in semiconductors.

Overall, it has been another great year for the SEMICON/Intersolar shows!


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