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Tokyo Electron completes deal to buy Oerlikon Solar

Tokyo Electron says it anticipates growth in the beleaguered thin-film PV sector in the years ahead, as it completes its acquisition of Oerlikon’s solar division.

The CFh250m ($270m) deal, unveiled in March, will see Tokyo Electron establish a third core business, on top of the production equipment it supplies to makers of semiconductors and flat-panel displays.

Tokyo Electron has had a joint development deal for thin-film PV with Sharp since 2008, and since 2009 it has acted as Oerlikon Solar’s marketing and sales agent in Asia.

Oerlikon – a Swiss technology conglomerate controlled by Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg – has been a leading supplier of production machines to the amorphous silicon (a-Si) thin-film PV sector, which saw rapid growth in the years before the current PV glut.

Key Oerlikon customers include Tianwei and Astronergy.

With the price of crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV modules tumbling in recent years – as polysilicon producers caught up with demand and module makers ballooned their factories – some experts have begun doubting the long-term competitiveness of a-Si.

That view was bolstered in 2010 when Oerlikon rival Applied Materials exited its turn-key a-Si business, citing competition from c-Si as one key factor in the decision.

But Tokyo Electron’s latest acquisition has been taken as a vote of confidence for the technology, and it comes at a time when the future of the PV market looks very different than it did just a few years ago.

Although thin-film panels – whether a-Si or cadmium-telluride – have lower conversion efficiencies than c-Si, they can perform better in hot climates.

That characteristic, along with their low price, will be attractive to customers building large ground-mounted arrays – or module factories – in places like North Africa, the Middle East and India.