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RFMD prepares GaN foundry and solar

Partnerships with NREL on concentrated photovoltaics, and a variety of customers on high power RF are set to bring new business to the company's Greensboro fabs.

GaAs chip pioneer RF Micro Devices is readying two significant departures from its traditional business model, as it enters the foundry services and solar cell markets.

In the biggest leap away from its staple handset chip manufacturing market, RFMD has partnered with the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory on photovoltaics.

“RFMD and NREL have agreed to collaborate on a commercially viable, high volume process for manufacturing compound semiconductor photovoltaic cells based on NREL s record holding technology,” said Konrad Alvarino, general manager of RFMD s new technology commercialization center.

The Greensboro, North Carolina, company will produce cells for use in concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems in its existing wafer fabrication facilities. It will release specific details of the products it plans to offer over the next 12-18 months.

“RFMD has a history of transferring high performance compound semiconductor technologies successfully, including TRW s HBT process, and we manufacture the compound semiconductors reliably, cost effectively and in high volume,” Alvarino said.

“RFMD s capabilities, combined with NREL s photovoltaic technology leadership resulting from decades of research, will be leveraged in our CPV cell development efforts.”

GaN foundry set for launch
Meanwhile, a high level of interest from customers wanting to implement their own chip designs has caused RFMD to prepare a GaN foundry service.

Wafers are already going through RFMD s internal research for process qualification purposes in advance of an official launch at June s MTT-S International Microwave Symposium in Boston, Massachusetts. The foundry will run 3-inch GaN-on-SiC wafers in RFMD s Greensboro fabs.

RFMD s GaN products and foundry services are attracting interest from a broad range of markets, Bob Van Buskirk, president of RFMD's multi-market products group, told compoundsemiconductor.net.

This includes both defense and commercial customers, for applications including radar, high power amplifier and high performance broadband radio. Companies producing cable TV line amplifiers and wireless infrastructure products for 3G, LTE and WiMAX networks are also thinking about using GaN chips, Van Buskirk said.

“We have been considering this new business area for some time and are launching the service to coincide with the completion of our internal, rigorous semiconductor process qualification,” he explained.

These moves come as RFMD seeks a return to profitability, after recording six consecutive quarterly net losses. In the quarter ended March RFMD's net loss nearly trebled to $49.6 million from $17.2 million for the same period in 2008 (see related story RFMD revenues fall further, but rebound predicted in current quarter).

Nevertheless RFMD chief executive officer Bob Bruggeworth remains optimistic. “We are very confident in our ability to leverage our expertise and our components and compound semiconductors in multiple markets,” he assured investors when announcing the latest results.

“We expect our strategic focus will serve us well whether the environment presents unprecedented challenges as it has in the current downturn or presents us new opportunities for growth and profitability as it does today.”

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