What has Applied Materials raided from Semitool?

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On the surface (pun intended) there would seem to be of little interest or need to know more about the recent acquisition by Applied Materials of a small cap semiconductor equipment supplier, Semitool. The Montana-based wet processing specialist has been around for a long-time and perhaps because of where it is based, compared with many equipment suppliers clustered in Silicon Valley, it gets little attention in comparison. However, solar cell producers may well find that they get a knock on the cleanroom door soon from Applied, to discuss porous silicon processes and a wet processing tool called the ‘Raider.’

Semitool has been working for more than five years with universities and the odd potential customer in developing low-cost porous silicon processes to increase c-Si solar cell’s ability to capture more light and therefore produce higher conversion efficiencies.

Don’t be mistaken with another wet process known as surface roughness or texturing, which is well known to many, the porous silicon process goes much further into creating nanoscale holes or channels that can boost reflectivity of the cell. However, Semitool is also developing a batch-based texturing tool for the solar market, though this would seem to be at an earlier development phase.

Just two years ago, Semitool sold its first porous silicon tool to c-Si solar cell producer, which was used for further development of the process in a real world environment.

It was around that time that I made some enquires with Semitool engineers working in this field and got the impression this process could be an important addition in the race to improve cell conversion efficiencies. However, little had been mentioned on this subsequently, until very recently.

In Semitool’s latest quarterly conference call, held before the Applied’s announced acquisition in early November, executives for the first time, openly discussed new tool shipments into the solar market. Indeed, Larry Murphy, President and COO at Semitool highlighted that the company had just received its first high-volume c-Si tool order for porous silicon processing on its Raider tool. Unfortunately, he didn’t reveal who the customer was.

Curiously, Applied’s executives played down the solar aspect of the Semitool acquisition when one bright analyst mentioned its recent move into the market, during a conference call to discuss the acquisition. Indeed, the press release announcing the deal, didn’t mention Semitool’s involvement in the solar market at all!

Instead, Applied reiterated in the call that it was the work it had been doing with the company in the semiconductor packaging area and the migration to copper interconnects in the memory market that was at the core of its planned expansions.

The lack of emphasis on the porous silicon IP that Semitool has developed may well be a way to avert attention now only for the company to work on perfecting this tool and processes to the point it believes it could have a new and important revenue stream in a quick turnaround, therefore allowing the company to make a bigger splash in the market at a later date.

Knowing that the Raider platform is a production proven platform, I doubt that it will be long before an announcement is made, perhaps as early as around Intersolar in Munich, or no later than EU PVSEC in September next year.

As is often the case, we will have to wait and see but the fact that Applied downplayed Semitool’s solar involvement makes it all the more intriguing.

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