Back in March, Twin Creeks Technologies orchestrated the unveiling of a process to make super-thin silicon wafers that it said had the potential to lower the price of solar modules to 40 cents per watt – around half the cost at the time. The company fed the story to the Wall Street Journal for an early-morning exclusive on the day of the announcement, and the rest of us tagged along afterward, encouraged by enthusiastic analysts who saw the company’s technology as a potential game-changer.
It hasn’t worked out. In fact, it has gone very badly. On Wednesday, GT Advanced Technologies announced it had acquired Twin Creeks’ ballyhooed Hyperion ion implanter technology and other assets and intellectual property of the company. GT said it paid $10 million plus royalties for future sales to Twin Creeks’ lenders in the sale.
“The acquisition of these assets from Twin Creeks, coupled with our operational expertise and proven ability to commercialize innovative technology will allow us to develop a new line of products that can deliver advancements in performance and value in the core markets we serve today as well as new markets that we have identified,” said Tom Gutierrez, president and chief executive officer of GT, in a statement. “We are particularly excited about the potential applications in the cover and touch screen markets.”
This is life in the rough-and-tumble solar world of 2012. Sure, companies would love to reduce costs, but who has the funding to build or retool production lines? That’s what Twin Creeks, which had reportedly pulled in somewhere between $80 million and $93 million in venture capital, was up against with its novel technology – nifty though it appears to be.
The common method for creating the wafers is to cut up silicon ingots, which produces 200-nanometer-thick slices and a great deal of kerf, or wasted silicon. Twin Creeks said its Hyperion system could make wafers a mere 20 nanometers thick and with none of the kerf.
The key to the process is a technique called proton induced exfoliation (PIE), in which a uniform layer of high-energy protons – hydrogen ions – are embedded into monocrystalline wafers to a depth of up to 20 microns. “When heated, this new layer expands, cleaving the top surface from the donor wafer to form an ultra-thin wafer that is otherwise identical to the original,” the company explained back in March. “The ultra-thin wafer is then further processed into solar modules or semiconductors.”
The focus on waste-reducing wafer processes isn’t peculiar to Twin Creeks; in the fall of 2011 we told you about 1366 Technologies, a Massachusetts company that says its own process reduces four separate manufacturing steps into a single, low cost continuous process and greatly reduces silicon waste by forming individual wafers directly from a bath of molten silicon. The company won a $150 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Gonna be interesting to see what comes of them.