Green

IBM adds thin-film process to burgeoning cleantech business

Big Blue has been on a cleantech tear of late. Starting with a touchy-feely virtual world it released for Earth Day in April, the company has made a succession of announcements: A technology for cooling concentrating solar arrays, a new line of modular, energy-efficient data-centers, and the latest, its entrance into the thin-film solar cell market.

Joining with Japanese semiconductor company Tokyo Ohka Kogyo, IBM will be working on thin-film copper-gallium-selenide (CIGS) cells, the same technology that Nanosolar, Miasole, Heliovolt and several other startups use. However, IBM has come out of the gate claiming its cells will be both cheaper and better than competing offerings that are headed to the market.

IBM told Reuters it plans to make cells with a 15 percent efficiency, about 50 percent higher than most CIGs cells and about even with the dominant silicon-based technologies. However, it says it will produce them for under $1 per watt, a symbolic price barrier that no manufacturer has yet breached. CNET has details on the chemical evaporation manufacturing process the company plans to use.

If IBM can meet its goals, its cells will be superior, in terms of the all-important cost-efficiency metric, to any other cells on the market, able to operate effectively in either municipal power plants or on the roofs of houses and businesses. The company plans on having the technology ready to license out to manufacturers within 2-3 years.

Here’s the grain of salt: IBM happens to be entering the most hyped segment of the cleantech market, with the possible exception of cellulosic ethanol. Over the past couple of years, CIGs technologies captured the lion’s share of VC investment into solar technologies but still account for less than 10 percent of the solar market. It’s hard to tell whether IBM is simply jumping into whichever markets it sees the most excitement in, or whether the technology expertise it has gained from its semiconductor business just happens to be uniquely suited to the same solar technologies that are already getting the most press.

Through no fault of IBM’s, there’s also a boy-who-cried-wolf situation: Thin-film companies have been all too happy to trumpet their own achievements before those achievements have actually been made. Commercializing CIGs hasn’t been easy; as we noted almost exactly a year ago, the most hotly anticipated CIGs companies had all slipped on their delivery dates, and several are still struggling today. IBM, also, will have to prove that it can walk the talk.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of companies that have already started making thin-film cells at scale. Thin-film market leader First Solar is producing CdTe cells for just over $1 per watt, and Nanosolar has intimated that it’s also producing cells fairly cheaply.

But keep an eye on IBM. Along with its most publicized ventures (like this one), Big Blue seems to be making a concerted push into cleantech, including a nanotech effort toward low-power semiconductors, enterprise carbon modeling software, and membership in the Eco-Patent Commons. Given the recent trend, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear more from IBM soon.