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Umicore to double germanium wafer output

The Belgian materials giant adds credence to the emerging market for terrestrial concentrator photovoltaics based on III-V materials, with a multi-million euro investment in a new germanium wafer facility in Oklahoma.

Umicore is investing a minimum of €22.5 million ($35.5 million) to create a second facility to produce germanium wafers.

The expansion at Umicore s site in Quapaw, Oklahoma, begins next month and is scheduled for completion within two years. "The facility"¦will effectively double [Umicore s] wafer production capacity to 900,000," said the company, which currently operates a single wafer production site in Olen, Belgium.

That huge investment is in response to the rapid growth of the terrestrial concentrator photovoltaics (CPV) market that Umicore is expecting, and suggests that the recent emergence of this technology is much more than mere hyperbole.

III-V semiconductors are the key to CPV, as they convert sunlight to electricity with an efficiency of around 40 per cent - more than double that of conventional silicon. Today, these cells are typically grown on 4-inch germanium substrates, but although there is a great deal of interest in CPV it remains only a tiny part of the overall photovoltaics market currently.

Umicore and its US rival AXT dominate the supply of 4-inch germanium wafers, with Utah-based start-up Sylarus recently emerging as a third competitor with 6-inch production capability (see related story).

A spokesman for Umicore told compoundsemiconductor.net that the new facility in Quapaw could produce either 4-inch or 6-inch material, depending on demand from customers. Umicore has recently developed 6-inch material (soon to be detailed in a forthcoming issue of Compound Semiconductor magazine) for CPV applications, and has even produced 12-inch material aimed at the microelectronics industry.

Although the CPV market is very small at the moment, and limited to parts of the world with clear, sunny skies, Umicore suggests that by 2020 electricity generation using this technology could have topped 6 GW - a figure postulated recently by the Prometheus Institute (see related story).

If that proves accurate, some 10 million germanium wafers would be required to support the necessary III-V cell manufacturing requirements.

And despite the limited number of customers currently manufacturing the high-technology cells in any volume - Emcore, Spectrolab and Azur Space - Umicore said that this base is now expanding, and that it was sampling material to emerging customers in China.

The site in Quapaw, which is the US home of Umicore s germanium-based optical materials business, will give the Belgian firm much closer proximity to US customers.

Dominated by Spectrolab and Emcore at present, that customer base looks likely to grow quickly, with companies including the epiwafer foundries Kopin Corporation, Spire Semiconductor and Global Communication Semiconductors (GCS) all making moves to enter III-V solar cell manufacturing.

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