Almost ousted from the solar market by Chinese competition, atomic-layer-deposition tool manufacturer Solaytec is optimistic it can tap new applications for its technology. It’s starting sister company SALD to do just that.
Solar alone isn’t a viable market anymore for Solaytec. That’s the cold hard truth, explains Frank Verhage of the Eindhoven-based enterprise. Alarmed by slowing demand, then-parent company of Solaytec, Amtech, hired him in October 2018 to investigate whether the Dutch subsidiary could survive. Verhage’s answer: not without looking at new applications.
Solaytec was spun off from research institute TNO a decade ago to commercialize in-house developed spatial atomic layer deposition (SALD) technology for the solar market. ALD, in general, involves sequentially exposing a substrate to different gases, which react with the surface in a self-limiting fashion, thus ‘coating’ it literally atomic layer by atomic layer. The difference between SALD and traditional ALD is that in SALD, the substrate moves past the gases, while in temporal ALD, it’s stationary while a reactor is repetitively filled and emptied. The continuous character should make SALD the superior technique for industrial applications.
In solar, at least, it was for a while. Compared to other deposition techniques, an ALD’ed layer of aluminum oxide imparts additional efficiency to solar cells, which led several high-end manufacturers to buy Solaytec’s SALD tools (as well as those of Levitech, another Dutch company selling SALD equipment). Unfortunately, as the aluminum oxide layer became more and more mainstream in solar, so did much cheaper Chinese batch ALD tools.
“The solar market, particularly in China, is currently driven by reducing cost, not by improving performance,” comments Verhage. “This could change, but there’s no way to predict when that will happen. Similarly, perovskite solar cells present an excellent opportunity for us, yet there’s no way of knowing when they’ll emerge from development.”
Fortunately, other high-tech industries have expressed interest in SALD: battery manufacturers, the flat-panel display industry and the printed electronics sector, among others. There are ample low-tech applications as well, such as airtight sealing of packaging materials and treating textile fibers. “As a high-throughput, roll-to-roll compatible technique, SALD is very suited for these applications,” says Verhage.
Solaytec has been working with multiple companies and research partners to explore alternative applications for a while now. Verhage can’t go into detail at this point, but he assures that Solaytec will be ready to offer new solutions in the near future. “We’ve made great progress over the past six months. We just need to wait until the patents are in order.”
In light of the expanding application scope, the “Solaytec” brand name is no longer satisfactory. It’s too closely associated with the solar industry, notes Verhage. That’s why Solaytec is starting a sister company, called SALD, which focuses on applications other than solar. SALD is not to be confused with Saldtech, another SALD company spun off from TNO, which is focused on OLED displays.
Unlike Solaytec, SALD’s equipment won’t feature its logo. “Solaytec is an OEM: we design the whole system, and though NTS built it for us, we market it ourselves. SALD is about innovation: our core technology is the deposition head and our core business is how to use it in different applications. We won’t be engineering and marketing the complete tools ourselves. Partners such as VDL-ETG will do that. More generally, in the spirit of the Brainport area, we’ll be actively seeking out collaboration to make the most of this great technology.”