Friday, September 26, 2008

Japan Solar Cell Makers Push For Thin-Film Primacy

From Nikkei News

OSAKA (Nikkei)--Seeing an opportunity to outdo their overseas rivals in the global solar cell market, Japanese manufacturers are stepping up efforts to develop and produce thin-film cells, which require much less silicon than conventional ones.

Kaneka Corp. (4118) appears to be taking the lead in this area. The company raised the energy conversion efficiency of solar cells to 12% by creating a new cell structure using microcrystalline silicon that enables a wider range of wavelength of light to be captured.

"The energy conversion efficiency of the thin-film type was only several percent and could not beat the microcrystalline type, whose efficiency was already more than 10%," said Mikio Hatta, managing executive officer at Kaneka.

That prompted the company to begin joint research with Osaka University in April to improve the conversion rate to 15% by adding organic thin-films to highly efficient thin-films.

Although there are various kinds of solar cells, including crystalline silicon, thin-film silicon and compound solar cells, thin-film types are drawing the most attention because they can reduce by 99% the use of silicon, which is in short supply.

Sharp Corp. (6753) plans to bring onstream a thin-film solar cell plant in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, in 2009, while Sanyo Electric Co. (6764), which offers its HIT series of solar modules that incorporate monocrystalline cells into thin films, aims to start mass-producing thin-film solar cells in 2010.

Equivalent to 40 nuclear power plants

Sanyo predicts that global output of solar cells will reach 40-45 million kilowatts in 2020, about the same amount of electricity produced by 40 nuclear power plants. Companies around the world are flocking to the market, drawn by its huge growth potential.

"A number of outsiders, such as investment funds, Chinese foodmakers and textile companies, have bought solar cell production lines and are building factories," said Yoshio Sunaga, senior managing director at Ulvac Inc. (6728), a major manufacturer of solar cell-producing equipment.

Applied Materials displays a new thin solar cell made from its advanced glass substrate at a Tokyo trade show in late July.

One major factor behind the growing interest in the technology is so-called turnkey solutions -- easy-to-operate comprehensive production lines for thin-film solar cells -- which are sharply lowering the bar for start-up firms to enter the business. Ulvac and U.S. firm Applied Materials Inc. offer such production lines.

At an exhibition held in Tokyo in late July, Applied Materials displayed solar cells using 8.5-generation (5.7 sq. meter) glass substrates. The company made them by applying the 8.5-generation LCD manufacturing equipment technology developed by AKT Inc. Collaboration was made possible because the manufacturing processes for LCDs and solar cells are similar.

As was the case with LCDs, the larger the size of solar cells manufactured at one time, the lower the production costs. John Antone, vice president of Applied Materials, said the company expects its production equipment to bring a similar cost-cutting effect in solar cells as it did in LCDs, and the installation costs could also be slashed by 17%. Solar cell plants equipped with the U.S. firm's comprehensive production lines will soon begin operating in India, the U.S. and China.

Even if such state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment is introduced, it will be difficult to achieve a conversion efficiency of over 10% like Japanese makers do. Yet the cost of power generation is obtained by multiplying two factors -- efficiency and the price of solar cells. Like in Japan, countries where land is limited, energy conversion efficiency is a top priority. But if solar cells can be set up where land is abundant, even half the efficiency will be effective on the condition that the cells cost less than half that of competing models.

(The Nikkei Business Daily Wednesday edition)

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