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Intel, IBM, HP build links within the solar industry

Intel, IBM, HP build links within the solar industry

The close links between the IT and solar sectors were again highlighted yesterday, after chip giant Intel announced it is branching out from its photovoltaic division, and IBM signed a partnership with Tokyo Ohka Kogyo to work on the developing of thin film solar cells.

Intel's spinoff, SpectraWatt, develops photovoltaic cells for companies that make solar panels which convert sunlight into electricity. The organization's cell fabrication plant will be built in Oregon and expects to begin supplying the market by mid-2009.

The company is starting life with a backing of $50m from an impressive line-up of financial organizations, including Intel Capital, the chip-maker's venture arm.

The firm said that research and development activities will concentrate on making the cells and their manufacturing process more efficient. This is the same model on which Intel's processor business has operated for four decades, in that the advances in fabrication processes are as important as the design of the chips themselves.

Other investors include Cogentrix Energy LLC, the power generation subsidiary of investment bank Goldman Sachs, private equity group PGC Clean Energy Technology Fund and German solar systems supplier Solon AG.

Meanwhile, IBM said it would work with semiconductor specialist Tokyo Ohka Kogyo to jointly develop processes, materials and equipment for the manufacture of copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) cells.

Tze-Chiang Chen, vice president of science and technology at IBM Research, said that the aim of the partnership was to "develop more efficient photovoltaic structures that would reduce the cost, minimize the complexity, and improve the flexibility of producing solar electric power".

CIGS manufacturers claim they have the potential to offer a more cost effective alternative to traditional solar panels as they do not contain any expensive silicon and can exploit faster thin film manufacturing processes.

The move comes just days after HP also signaled its interest in the sector, signing a deal with concentrating photovoltaic specialist Xtreme Energetics, which will see the solar firm use HP's transistor technology to better focus sunlight on its photovoltaic cells.

The announcements are the latest in a series of deals underlining the close relationship that is developing between many IT manufacturers and their counterparts in the solar sector. Observers argue that much of the nanotechnology expertise built up by IT firms in the manufacture of computer chips can be effectively applied to solar cells, helping solar firms to enhance manufacturing processes and lower costs.

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