Paul van Gerven
23 December 2021

It’s become a bit of a Dutch specialty: spatial atomic layer deposition. For some reason, however, it seems impossible to efficiently concentrate resources and capital in a single company. After Levitech and Solaytec competed in the PV market for years, now it looks like SALD and SALDtech will battle it out in the green tech arena.

A little over a decade ago, two promising Dutch startups started taking aim at exactly the same target. Both armed with a continuous atmospheric version of the atomic layer deposition (ALD) process, called spatial ALD, they offered silicon solar cell manufacturers a way to deposit a so-called passivation layer of superior quality. This translated into a nice additional efficiency gain compared to depositing the same layer with another technique.

Contender number one, Levitech, was spun out of ASMI, which at the time already had an ALD track record in the semiconductor industry (this business has exploded over the past few years). Originally, the startup was to continue ASMI’s Levitor business for rapid thermal processing, but parent company and management saw an opportunity to extend the Levitor’s unique wafer transport system to the PV market. The newly developed Levitrack leads solar wafers, floating on ‘pillows of gas,’ past alternating gas zones, thus enabling the ALD process to proceed.

ALD 1 2 3 4
During atomic layer deposition, a film is grown on a substrate by exposing its surface to alternate gaseous species, in this example to trimethylaluminum and water to form aluminum oxide.

Independently, researchers at TNO had developed the very same concept. It has been established that the research institute pitched this technology to ASMI before Levitech was founded. It’s unclear, however, whether ASMI was already working on its own spatial ALD plans at this time, and if so, whether it told TNO about them. In any case, the equipment manufacturer wasn’t interested in working with TNO. The research outfit then proceeded to start an equipment company of its own: Solaytec, which for all intents and purposes started to market the same passivation layer deposition equipment as Levitech.

Understandably, Levitech wasn’t too happy about this. The company may have had a legitimate grievance that Solaytec was receiving unlawful state aid by getting a bargain on the license on TNO’s spatial ALD technology. We’ll never know because while the European Commission accepted Levitech’s complaint on this matter, a verdict was never returned.

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Levitech pulled the plug on the costly and time-consuming proceedings after they had dragged on for years and seemed to go nowhere. Furthermore, by then, Solayec had been absorbed by the US Amtech conglomerate, and Levitech had been working together amicably with Amtech subsidiary Tempress, which also supplies PV manufacturing equipment. Most importantly, however, demand for spatial ALD equipment in the solar market plummeted because it couldn’t compete with the batch-based ALD equipment that several Chinese companies started offering. No need for Levitech and Solaytec to fight each other while the real battle was with the Chinese competition – a battle that ultimately has been lost.

Awry

With respect to spatial ALD, Levitech is now biding its time. It’s keeping tabs on new applications, but for now, the Almere-based company is mostly focused on its Levitor business. Meanwhile, Solaytec was divested from Amtech (as was Tempress). It started sister company SALD, which is working to accelerate alternative uses for spatial ALD, especially in green applications such as batteries, next-gen solar cells and fuel cells. SALD has developed a versatile R&D tool, which several organizations from around the world have purchased to explore and perfect their film recipes. Next on the Eindhoven-based company’s roadmap is high-volume manufacturing equipment.

SALD glovebox
SALD’s research tool fitted with a glove box to perform ALD experiments in a controlled atmosphere. Credit: About.today for SALD

Relations between Levitech and SALD are amicable now. Why wouldn’t they be? The two companies are no longer competitors. Unfortunately for SALD, however, it’s now facing a new Dutch rival. Remarkably, that’s another TNO spinoff. And even more remarkably, this company is currently managed by a former Solaytec CEO.

Funded by Innovation Industries, an investment fund created by Dutch technical universities and TNO, and by the Brabant Development Agency (BOM), TNO started another spatial ALD company in 2018. This company, SALDtech, was initially targeting the display market exclusively, but things went awry and recently the company has announced that it will also start exploring … green applications.

Burned twice

For a high-tech ecosystem that prides itself on its cooperative spirit, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t seem possible to present a united front when it comes to commercializing a technology that arguably has become something of a Dutch specialty. Competition is healthy, but it would be better if resources and capital are pulled together to stay ahead of the foreign competition. For example, both SALD and SALDtech are now vying for the same public funds through the Nxtgen High Tech proposal.

Both SALD and SALDtech claim they’re open to cooperation, but according to a source familiar with both companies, it’s unlikely they’ll join forces anytime soon. Apparently, relations have soured due to some “unsportsmanlike behavior” by some of the parties involved. Regardless, one can see why SALD, which already has several tools operational in the field, doesn’t see the added value of joining up with a company that has yet to make its first sale.

If we’re stuck – again – with two companies in possession of basically the same technology (SALD and SALDtech made different engineering choices) to target the same markets, let’s at least make sure it’s a nice clean fight. SALDtech assures that its license for TNO’s spatial ALD technology reflects fair market value. After the unpleasantness with Levitech, though never resolved, the research institute surely wouldn’t want to risk getting burned twice by the same flame. And if TNO wants to procure spatial ALD equipment, it should do so based on a fair and transparent procedure.

Other than that, may the best equipment win.