Friday, April 18, 2008

6N Silicon and the search for more polysilicon

As promised last post, we'll talk a little more about the silicon supply situation today. Over the past year, we've seen the stock price of listed solar module companies rise with each announcement of a long term polysilicon supply contract. The explosion of the solar industry has created an unprecedented demand for polysilicon, the raw ingredient to crystalline-based photovoltaic solar cells.

Until recently, polysilicon supply was adequately met by the scrap silicon from the semiconductor industry. But such supplies were very soon outstripped by the demands imposed by the solar boom, which bring us to where we are now. We are seeing similar kinds bottlenecks in other alternative energy sectors--the wind industry is experiencing a parts shortage, while the nuclear industry (which by my book is NOT part of the clean energy industry) is also facing a shortage of reactor parts.

There are inefficiencies in relying on semiconductor grade silicon for making crystalline solar panels. Semiconductor grade silicon is 99.999999% pure (nine 9's), whereas solar grade silicon requires a slightly lower purity of 99.9999% (six 9's). Till recently, very few plants specialize is making polysilicon specially for the solar market. Moreover, as discussed previously, the rush to meet polysilicon demand has brought about some environmentally adverse practices. But some companies, like Canadian-based 6N Silicon Inc. (what's in a name? 6N = six 9's of the purity solar grade silicon), are taking novel approaches to address the silicon problem.

6N is located in the greater Toronto area, considered the heart of Canada's metal processing industry. It is also led by its founder Scott Nichol and CEO, Paolo Maccario, both with extensive experience in the metallurgical industry. It is no wonder that 6N's approach applies metal processing techniques to silicon production. The following Q&A taken from 6N's FAQ on its website summarizes its approach:
4. What makes 6N Silicon different?

We take the most basic form of commercially available, impure silicon known as metallurgical grade silicon, and then we apply metal processing techniques to refine it into a very pure form. We utilize equipment that is commonly used in other metal processing industries. This is dramatically different from the current standard vapor deposition process and its high energy requirements.

5. What are 6N Silicon's competitive advantages?

Our primary competitive advantages are related to speed and cost. We are distinguished by dramatically lower capital equipment costs, very low production costs, rapid expansion capability, and our wide flexibility in location. Our process has a much smaller footprint and very low environmental impact. These strengths allow us to utilize conventional warehouse-type facilities rather than highly specialized industrial plants.
6N just received a second-round $20 million investment led by Good Energies, one of the top investors in the clean tech space.

So just how long can we expect the silicon shortage to persist? Some expect the polysilicon shortage to ease in 2009, while a report by Frost & Sullivan indicates that the polysilicon supply will open up this year. Elsewhere, a move by Trina Solar, a Chinese PV manufacturer, to cancel its plans to build its own polysilicon factory left industry observers speculating if such move should be construed as the company's belief that the end of the polysilicon shortage is closer in sight (or if it is merely a reflection of Trina's internal situation).

For additional insights into the silicon situation in China today, click here, here and here.

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