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Hemlock to boost silicon production

06 февраля 2008

Hemlock Semiconductor, the world's biggest maker of high-purity crystalline silicon for solar cells and electronic chips, has started a search for a new production site in Asia or Europe amid surging demand for silicon for use in solar panels.

Hemlock has already announced a plan to spend more than $1.5bn to expand its existing plant in Hemlock, Michigan. Production of pure silicon from this site is due to rise from an expected 10,000 tonnes this year to about 36,000 tonnes in 2012.

All Hemlock's silicon output until 2012 has been sold to solar cell makers under forward contracts, finalised as these businesses have scrambled to guarantee deliveries of silicon, which has been in short supply for several years.

Michigan-based Hemlock is controlled by Dow Corning, the US speciality chemical company, with minority stakes held by Shin-Etsu and Mitsubishi Materials of Japan.

Solar cells generate electricity without burning fossil fuels, an activity linked to global warming.

The company did not want to disclose which countries it is considering as potential sites for a new plant. If it proceeded with the plan, it would probably spend at least $500m on the project, according to estimates. It is thought Hemlock will decide whether to proceed with the site in the next few months.

Rick Doornbos, chief executive of Hemlock, said the company was "committed to maintaining leadership" in supply of high-quality silicon. A new plant for Hemlock would be its first outside the US.

Other leading makers of pure silicon are also increasing production. Wacker, of Germany, the world's second-biggest maker, is spending €400m ($592m) to raise production to about 20,000 tonnes a year by 2010, from about half this amount last year.

Hemlock said it was interested in the possibilities of new production outside the US because of burgeoning interest in solar energy which requires increasing amounts of pure silicon. This material is very hard to make because of the complexity of the technical procedures involved.

In 2007, about 50,000 tonnes of pure silicon were produced worldwide, with customers split roughly equally between makers of solar cells and companies which use the material to process into wafers for electronic chips.

By 2010, the amount of silicon used in industry will rise to about 120,000 tonnes, according to Photon Consulting, a German research group, with extra demand from the solar sector.

Apart from companies producing pure silicon using chemical means, another group of businesses worldwide is preparing to step up significantly supplies of silicon that are spread on to surfaces of solar cells.

Such "thin film" techniques hold out the advantage of requiring much smaller quantities of silicon than the conventional chemical processes and could turn out to be much cheaper.

Источник: Financial Times

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