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Emcore Retreats To The Skies

Business is buoyant for exotic solar cells in space, but back on Earth the industry limps on. Compound Semiconductor talks to Emcore to find out more.
 In late January, this year, US-based Emcore, delivered its one millionth multi-junction solar cell to US satellite maker, SSL, previously known as Space Systems/Loral, representing more than a megawatt of power delivered into space.

This landmark figure followed its Summer 2012 milestone, which saw the 100th spacecraft powered by its solar equipment launched.

As chief operating officer, Christopher Larocca, said at the time: “We have a total of 120 more satellites under contract to be launched and powered by our solar equipment over the next several years."

But while the solar power and fibre-optics manufacturer's III-V systems continue to find favour in space, the story at ground level is quite different.

In August 2010, Emcore joined forces with San'an Optoelectronics, China, to launch joint venture Suncore Photovoltaics. Together the businesses were to develop and manufacture CPV modules and systems, for terrestrial applications, that would produce electricity by focusing sunlight onto Emcore's multi-junction solar cell.

In March 2012, manufacture at Suncore's 200MW Huainan facility started, including the supply of 50MW to a utility-scale CPV farm in Golmud, one of the sunniest locations in China. And then six months later, Emcore divested its share of Suncore to a US Suncore subsidiary.

This time, Larocca said: “This will allow us to focus efforts on our core competency of  multi-junction solar cell technology for both space and terrestrial power applications."

But without a doubt, the lion's share of Emcore's solar business lies in space.

As vice president of business development, Navid Fatemi, puts it: “The [terrestrial CPV] market has been either flat or declining since 2008, and Emcore was in the systems business all this time. There is 15MW [of capacity] installed at the Golmud power plant, but we haven't seen much growth anywhere else other than China... so we divested the CPV systems business with Suncore."

According to Fatemi, the company is still supplying its terrestrial cells to a few domestic customers - “in small quantities relatively speaking" - and sending the bulk of this business to China. But as he highlights, space is where the big wins are for Emcore, now the company has stepped back from the uncertainties of the CPV solar industry.

“Space is the completely dominant market for us," he says. “We have more than 50% of the US space market and around 40% of the global market, so our outlook [especially] in the States, depends on the satellite industry."

And the company's latest financial results reflect this move. Revenue for the photovoltaics business was up 13% to $19.6million, from the last quarter, which chief executive Hong Hou, attributed to strong demand in space programs. Meanwhile, margins leapt 8% to 30.5%, following the sale of the lower-margin terrestrial systems lines.

And thanks to a steady stream of satellite-related projects, Hou and colleagues now expect the solar business to generate a “nice" operating profit, with revenues remaining flat, but at the current high level.

So what of the future? Fatemi will not be drawn on details, saying: “We expect slight growth for the next year. I've been in this business for many years and every time experts predict a downturn or up-tick, it hasn't, in my view, been very accurate."

Still, with the company's third generation, triple junction, 29.5% efficient solar cell well established - the company recently announced a $5 million contract with ATK to power the AMOS-6 telecoms satellite - attention surely turns to the much-awaited inverted metamorphic (IMM) solar cell.

As early as 2007, Compound Semiconductor reported company executives flaunting the new architecture, promising at least 33% efficiency and delivery by 2010. Clearly, this hasn't happened, but today, Emcore predicts the cell will ship come 2016.

“We hold the world record for space solar cell efficiency with this cell and are still very much focused on this architecture," says Fatemi. “We believe we are ahead of world competition with development of the IMM cell, and our belief is we should have qualified products by 2015, and with today's plan, these will be in production by 2016."





 

An artist's concept of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environmental Explorer (LADEE): Emcore is to provide solar panels for this and many more space contracts .

 



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