Is Applied Materials Entering the Solar Equipment Manufacturing Business?

I heard a rumor not too long ago from a friend that Applied Materials was entering the solar business. Specifically, that Applied was developing a business unit that would build and sell a suite of “standard” solar manufacturing equipment process lines. If this is true, it would be a big step forward for the industry, which typically today has been expanding with equipment from a range of small and mid-sized vendors. An entry by Applied would not only provide credibility for the industry, but might go a long way to provide much needed investment into the solar supply chain.

To confirm this rumor, and get an idea of what kind of solar technologies and processes Applied might be doing, I started making a few inquiries and searches. No mention of solar in their annual report or on the their website. Nothing in the mainstream press or on any of the solar blogs I follow, nor in my favorite solar news site, Solarbuzz.com. However, we struck data on several job sites and the US patent database.

After reading the materials, I am still not sure exactly what kind of products and processes Applied is going after. Many of the patents have only oblique references to solar, and limited or no references in the claims themselves. And there are a wide range of references. But based on a combination of a inclusion of and recent increase in reference to solar in the patent search, and recent open positions for some fairly specific non R&D solar skill sets, I would be comfortable saying that the rumor is likely true, and Applied is at least running a program to evaluate building solar cell manufacturing equipment. And it’s likely to involve plasma enhanced chemical vapor deposition and physical vapor deposition systems, and likely to hit the market in the next 12-24 months based on the type of engineers they are hiring, but not likely in the next 12 months, as I could find no evidence of sales and sales engineers hires, or any of the news buzz I would expect to preced this type of entry.

The references we dug up.

On Monster:
This was a bit informative. The position called for: “Product (PECVD and PVD systems for Thin Film Silicon Solar panel manufacturing) promotion to AKT internal constituencies (mostly to sales) and to external customers:
  • Development of collateral materials together with technical marketing or engineering (for technology, specifications, facilities, concept)
  • Customer visits to present AKT products and benefits
  • Coordination of follow-up with sales / technical marketing
  • Support timely collection, organization and distribution of key information related to system specifications, facilities requirements, process performance, etc.”
A second Monster.com ad called for a Process Engineer III with knowledge in:
  • Amorphous silicon (a-Si) solar (cell)
  • Microcrystalline (nanocrystalline) silicon (mc-Si or nc-Si) solar (cell)
  • Photovoltaic
  • Thin film solar (cell)
  • PECVD
And on Yahoo Hot Jobs, a broad ad for multiple process engineers:
“the processing and characterization of thin film CVD solar cell/photvoltaic devices on amorphous and microcrystalline silicon; OR PVD of Transparent Conductive Oxide on solar devices”.

In the US Patent Office Database: A search for patents & published applications with Applied Materials as the assignee and “solar” in the text turned up 53 results.

Published Applications included:
1 20060060138 Diffuser gravity support
2 20060051507 Electronic device manufacturing chamber and methods of forming the same
3 20060038554 Electron beam test system stage
4 20060030088 Shadow frame with cross beam for semiconductor equipment
5 20050287688 Water-barrier performance of an encapsulating film
6 20050220604 Substrate support bushing
7 20050180737 Substrate support bushing
8 20050063800 Substrate support
9 20040194701 Method and apparatus for silicon oxide deposition on large area substrates
10 20040170407 Substrate support
11 20030203123 System and method for metal induced crystallization of polycrystalline thin film transistors
12 20030164362 Pre-heating and loadlock pedestal material for high temperature CVD liquid crystal and flat panel display applications
13 20030161706 Substrate support
14 20030150849 Heated substrate support
15 20030143410 Method for reduction of contaminants in amorphous-silicon film
16 20030141820 Method and apparatus for substrate processing
17 20030072639 Substrate support
18 20030067180 End effector assembly
19 20020175160 PRE-HEATING AND LOAD LOCK PEDESTAL MATERIAL FOR HIGH TEMPERATURE CVD LIQUID CRYSTAL AND FLAT PANEL DISPLAY APPLICATIONS
Patents Issued
1 7,024,063 In-situ real-time monitoring technique and apparatus for endpoint detection of thin films during chemical/mechanical polishing planarization
2 7,001,242 Method and apparatus of eddy current monitoring for chemical mechanical polishing
3 6,963,393 Measurement of lateral diffusion of diffused layers
4 6,960,263 Shadow frame with cross beam for semiconductor equipment
5 6,924,462 Pedestal for flat panel display applications
6 6,917,755 Substrate support
7 6,915,592 Method and apparatus for generating gas to a processing chamber
8 6,897,411 Heated substrate support
9 6,885,458 Apparatus and method for determining the active dopant profile in a semiconductor wafer
10 6,876,454 Apparatus and method for in-situ endpoint detection for chemical mechanical polishing operations
11 6,860,791 Polishing pad for in-situ endpoint detection
12 6,855,484 Method of depositing low dielectric constant silicon carbide layers
13 6,849,152 In-situ real-time monitoring technique and apparatus for endpoint detection of thin films during chemical/mechanical polishing planarization
14 6,824,343 Substrate support
15 6,806,203 Method of forming a dual damascene structure using an amorphous silicon hard mask
16 6,743,340 Sputtering of aligned magnetic materials and magnetic dipole ring used therefor
17 6,719,818 Apparatus and method for in-situ endpoint detection for chemical mechanical polishing operations
18 6,634,686 End effector assembly
19 6,620,956 Nitrogen analogs of copper II .beta.-diketonates as source reagents for semiconductor processing
20 6,610,374 Method of annealing large area glass substrates
21 6,537,133 Method for in-situ endpoint detection for chemical mechanical polishing operations
22 6,528,767 Pre-heating and load lock pedestal material for high temperature CVD liquid crystal and flat panel display applications
23 6,521,082 Magnetically enhanced plasma apparatus and method with enhanced plasma uniformity and enhanced ion energy control
24 6,451,390 Deposition of TEOS oxide using pulsed RF plasma
25 6,329,292 Integrated self aligned contact etch
26 5,964,643 Apparatus and method for in-situ monitoring of chemical mechanical polishing operations
27 5,863,598 Method of forming doped silicon in high aspect ratio openings
28 5,788,453 Piezoelectric wafer gripping system for robot blades
29 5,674,786 Method of heating and cooling large area glass substrates
30 5,607,009 Method of heating and cooling large area substrates and apparatus therefor
31 5,512,320 Vacuum processing apparatus having improved throughput
32 5,212,537 Calibration technique for monochromators and spectrophotometers
33 4,682,566 Evacuated equipment
34 4,563,367 Apparatus and method for high rate deposition and etching

Other interesting finds:
Applied is buying into a green power initiative with the City of Santa Clara, which indicates at least some internal support for green initiatives.

Applied Ventures was mentioned in a January 2006 article on Dow Jones Newswires stating that solar energy was one their areas of interest.
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