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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The machine looks like a square spaceship with a round hatch or a giant oven with a convection fan. Its designer jokingly calls the contraption the “world’s most expensive bug zapper.”

In fact it’s a wafer tool, developed by San Jose startup Twin Creeks Technologies as a better, cheaper way to make solar cells.

Given the collapse in solar panel ASPs over the past year or so, reducing solar cell manufacturing costs is critical to competitiveness. It isn’t clear whether Western manufacturers can still compete with their Chinese rivals, which are believed to have leveraged ample government funding to shore up their business as they slashed prices and grabbed market share.

But Twin Creeks is betting there’s still a business in making the machines that make solar cells. By adding value in the manufacturing process, company executives claim, the third-generation Hyperion wafer tool could put the United States back in the solar business, or at least one segment of it.

Siva Sivaram, Twin Creeks’ voluble CEO, knows a lot about electronics manufacturing. A 14-year veteran of Intel, where he oversaw the chip giant’s external manufacturing, Sivaram literally wrote the book on chemical vapor deposition; his 1995 text is still used in college engineering courses. Sivaram eventually joined his idol, Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, at the Sematech chip manufacturing consortium. While there, Sivaram worked on another key chip manufacturing technology, chemical-mechanical planarization.

After stints at Matrix Semiconductor (acquired by SanDisk in 2006) and on the board of Nanosolar, Sivaram founded Twin Creeks in 2008. The company kept a low profile until last month, when it introduced its third-generation Hyperion tool, the production version of its solar cell manufacturing technology. The machines are being made in Senatobia, Miss., under terms of an economic development deal with the Magnolia State.

The arrangement keeps the manufacturing technology—and at least a few jobs—in the United States, Sivaram said in an interview. “The know-how stays in the U.S.,” he said.

The Hyperion 3 wafer production system developed by Twin Creeks Technologies
The problem with current solar manufacturing, Sivaram said, is that “something comes in, something goes out, with no value” added. The company concluded that much thinner wafers could halve the cost of making solar cells. It applied the principles behind a technology called proton-induced exfoliation to develop the Hyperion tool. The technique slices wafers to produce efficient, flexible solar cells as thin as 20 microns.

“You remove the waste, you make the material more productive, you add more value in your factory instead of just taking [solar] materials and selling it for a few cents more,” Sivaram said in pitching his product. “The value here is in the ability to make those thin” wafers.

The Hyperion 3 can process more than 1.5 million thin wafers annually, or about 6 megawatts’ worth of solar cells. Given the competitive nature of the solar business, Sivaram said, Twin Creeks is already at work on a next-generation tool capable of producing 8 MW per year. “We need to keep improving,” the CEO said.

Twin Creeks claims to have lined up five “qualified customers” in China since the production version of the Hyperion tool was released.

No word yet on any U.S. customers.

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