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Polysilicon Production Grew in Q4 for Solar, Reported SEMI

Ucilia Wang: March 11, 2009, 1:31 PM

Polysilicon producers shipped about 12,600 metric tons of their products in the fourth quarter of 2008, a 7 percent growth from the previous quarter, according to the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI).

SEMI, an industry group, said the companies increased their production to meet demand from the solar industry. The semiconductor industry has been in a deep funk over the past year, thanks to the battered economy. Polysilicon is the raw material for making chips, which are found in all electronic devices. The material also is used to make solar cells.

The solar industry isn’t immune to the financial market turmoil, and many solar companies didn’t fare so well in the fourth quarter. LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK), a silicon wafer maker, on Wednesday reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $133.1 million, or $1.25 per American depositary share (ADS), compared with a third-quarter net income for $88.4 million, or 77 cents per ADS.

China-based LDK had to take a $216.7 million charge because the market value of its inventory fell below cost. The company had previously warned investors that the fourth-quarter numbers wouldn’t be pretty. LDK’s shares plummeted nearly 14 percent to close at $4.06 per share on Wednesday.

SEMI reported that, overall, polysilicon producers shipped about 43,900 metric tons of polysilicon in 2008. Companies that provided the shipment figures were DC Chemical, Hemlock Semiconductor, MEMC Electronic Materials, REC Silicon, Tokuyama and Wacker Chemie.

SEMI only started collecting polysilicon shipment data in 2008, and it hopes to line up more companies in its data-collection program, said Dan Tracy, senior director of industry research and statistics at SEMI.

The group is branching into the solar industry because the processes for making solar cells and chips are similar. SEMI has collected data on semiconductor factory equipment, silicon wafers and gases and chemicals for the semiconductor and flat panel display industries for years. It plans to expand its data collection in the solar industry by including solar cell shipment and other segments, Tracy said.

Catilin Gets $150K to Test Biodiesel Catalyst

Jeff St. John: March 11, 2009, 11:40 AM
Catilin has landed $150,000 to put its test biodiesel plant into continuous operation — not to scale up to commercial-scale production, but to prove its catalyst technology can help other biodiesel producers make fuel for less money. The Ames, Iowa-based startup is developing a catalyst for other biodiesel makers, one that it says beats existing catalysts on the amount of water, energy and toxic additives needed to turn oils to fuel. The solid, granular catalyst — different from liquid catalysts used today — can also be recycled for multiple uses, and is based on research out of Iowa State University The stuff also does its job on a variety of feedstocks, including lower-quality ones like used animal fats and cooking oils, which could be a boon to producers worried about prices for soybeans, palm oil and other commodity feedstocks for biodiesel. With a $150,000 grant from Iowa's Economic Development Department, Catilin intends to prove its catalyst works at a continuous production level, the company announced Wednesday. It has been testing it in batch biodiesel production at its Nevada, Iowa pilot plant. Catilin raised $3 million in a 2007 series A round led by Mohr Davidow Ventures, and CEO Larry Lenhart is a former Mohr Davidow "executive in residence." Lenhart said in a 2007 interview that Catilin's catalyst could cut  production costs by 50 cents a gallon — a big deal in a market where a $1-per-gallon subsidy is necessary for biodiesel to remain price-competitive with standard diesel fuel. The company noted Wednesday that the "T300 series" catalyst can be easily integrated into existing biodiesel production facilities — meaning it doesn't need to build its own plant to see a path toward profitability. That's probably a good thing, since financing for new biofuel facilities is getting harder to come by. Some biofuel companies are being pushed into bankruptcy, and others are struggling (see The Year in Biofuels). Catilin also touts its research into making biodiesel from algae — a field that has seen a lot of venture capital interest, but has yet to yield commercial-scale production at affordable prices (see Algae Biodiesel: It's $33 a Gallon). Catilin says it is developing technology that strains oil from algae without killing it — something that startup Phycal is also working on.

Fast Batteries

Matthew Weinberg: March 11, 2009, 10:42 AM
The news that MIT researchers have developed a lithium material that dramatically shortens battery charging times changes the equation for electric cars. It’s a long way from the lab to the showroom, but the battery breakthrough is a big step toward making electric cars eminently practical. Even though most of us drive fewer than 40 miles each day, the ranges allowed by today’s battery technologies are a major psychological barrier. And most of us do drive several hundred miles at a go now and then. Eventually batteries will store enough energy to give electric vehicles the ranges we expect from our cars. Fast-charging batteries could solve the problem before then. Imagine an electric car with a 100-mile range, something that’s likely to be widely available within five years. If it has a fast-charging battery — say something that allows 10-minute pit stops — the perception of electric cars could change dramatically. The recharging stops would be more frequent and a few minutes longer than today’s refueling stops, but I think the experience would be similar enough that people will stop thinking of electric cars as range-limited. Highway refueling stops usually involve answering nature’s call, buying snacks and/or stretching legs. Behaviorally, the only difference would be that instead of doing these activities before or after refueling, people will do them while their cars are recharging. It’s clear that liquid fuels will be the dominant power source in the transportation sector for years to come, if for no other reason than the time it takes to replace the installed base of internal combustion engine vehicles. And plug-in hybrid vehicles are an important transition technology. But the best option is electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources, especially with the expected boom in the global car population thanks to China and India. Fast battery technology could be a critical factor in establishing electric vehicles in time to make a difference. Eric Smalley is the editor of Energy Research News. He has written about technology since 1987 and has freelanced for many publications including Discover, Scientific American, Wired News and The Boston Globe on topics ranging from quantum cryptography to global warming.

Alta Devices: Kleiner’s Latest Stealth Solar Company

Michael Kanellos: March 11, 2009, 7:57 AM
Sources in the 650 area code have told me to keep an ear and an eye out for Alta Devices, a stealthy solar startup that allegedly has received funds from Kleiner, Perkins. Not much is known about the company. I've seen Alta listed as both a software developer and a biotechnology services company. A search on social networks, however, shows that that employees classify it as a renewable energy company and/or a semiconductor company. Solar cells, of course, are semiconductors that produce alternative energy. Employees include senior scientist Gregg Higashi, who used to work at Applied Materials and Intel before joining Alta in 2008. Applied and Intel -- those two names pop up with scary frequency at solar startups these days. Solyndra is run by an Applied alum while First Solar is steered by Intel manufacturing guru Bruce Sohn. These two are like finishing schools for management material. Update: as a reader points out, Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Material Science at Caltech ("Can you make a bed sheet that will be impervious human sweat collected after to multiple viewings of Ice Station Zebra?" our illustrious donor asks) is the founder. Atwater's group investigates silicon but also group IV materials such as germanium. They also look at lattice and strained structures. Straining silicon lattices with germanium was a big deal in processors in the middle part of the decade as a way to improve electron mobility. A couple of start-ups are looking at straining techniques for solar cells, although the straining techniques can vary. Atwater also founded Aonex. both Aonex and Alta are described as thin film material solar energy companies here. The Caltech connection further explains why many of the Alta employees come from that university's PhD programs. Also keep an eye out for Tula, a startup with a chip that greatly improves car mileage. Khosla Ventures put money into that. Again, I don't make these things up. I just pass them along.

Bush Put Clean Coal and Carbon Capture Back a Decade, Chide Democrats

Michael Kanellos: March 11, 2009, 7:23 AM
Scrapping the FutureGen project was the nadir for me when it came to studying the Bush Administration and energy. The former President was never a pal to the environment or global warming (although scientists close to the White House have told me that George W. was actually more keen on the idea of alternatives than the VP or members of his cabinet.). Still, when the White House turned on the coal industry and canceled FutureGen, a $1.8 billion project to build a power plant with a sequestration facility, I was shocked. Didn't see that coming at all. The problem was a budget issue too. This from an administration that ran up some of the biggest deficits in global history. The industry was paying half the bill, by the way. Democrats on the House Committee on Science and Technology now plan to release a report stating that the cancellation put back carbon capture by a decade, according to the WSJ's Environmental Capital blog. Worse, they estimate that it would have only cost $1.3 billion. The report, as quoted by the WSJ, says that DOE staffers told the administration:
Without FutureGen, the availability of affordable coal fueled [carbon capture and sequestration] plants would be delayed at least 10 years and will not allow widespread deployment of CCS until near 2040. Affordable CCS technologies will not be available in time to meet the expected turnover of the existing fleet of coal power plants in the US, nor for incorporation into the development of the world’s massive coal resources in countries such as China and India.
Two things may come out of this. One, more criticism about past policies. Two, more funding for clean coal. Many environmentalists hate the concept, but the U.S. gets half of its electrical power from coal. Unless we agree that odd-numbered addresses only get power Monday, Wednesday, Friday and half of Sunday, coal is here for now. China's economy depends on it too.

Ford to Get Piece of AT&T’s $565 Greener Vehicles Plan

Jeff St. John: March 11, 2009, 6:44 AM

AT&T is taking credit for the biggest investment yet by a U.S. company into a cleaner vehicle fleet, saying it will spend $565 million in the next decade to buy 15,000 alternative fuel vehicles.

And it looks like AT&T is planning to buy a significant number of the vehicles from Ford Motor Co., Reuters reported Wednesday.

The plan first calls for $350 million to buy about 8,000 compressed natural gas-fueled vehicles over the next five years. Corporate and government fleets are natural first adopters of CNG as a fuel, since they can supply their own fueling stations — AT&T plans to build 40 new fueling stations as part of its plan.

AT&T said only that it would look to “domestic suppliers??? to convert van and truck chassis made by a U.S. automaker to run on natural gas. But Reuters reported that Ford is to build the chassis.

Ford may also be ahead in the lineup to supply AT&T with hybrid vehicles, as part of its plan to spend $215 million over the next decade to replace about 7,100 passenger cars with cleaner vehicles.

AT&T has been using four Escape hybrids in a pilot project in California since 2007, and Reuters reports that AT&T’s supply chain president said that Ford hybrids will make up most of the hybrids in an 800-vehicle trial run set for 2009. Toyota will also supply some hybrids, according to Reuters.

Ford has outlined plans for a more fuel-efficient fleet that will include an electric van in 2010 for fleet customers, leading to wider hybrid and all electric consumer vehicle offerings in 2012 (see Ford Outlines Fuel Economy, Electric Car Plans to Feds).

Back then Ford was asking for a $9 billion loan, but has since backed off, saying it is not in as dire financial condition as fellow U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler (see Hybrid-Electrics and Tough Times at Geneva Show).

AT&T’s decision to buy compressed natural gas vehicles earned it the praise of natural gas-and-wind power evangelist T. Boone Pickens, who has been pushing for adoption of the fuel as a way to reduce America’s dependence on oil imports (see Pickens Wants Natural Gas-Fueled Big Rigs).

AT&T recognizes that our reliance on foreign oil is one of the greatest threats to our national security,??? Pickens said in a prepared statement. “Hopefully others will follow their lead.???

BP Solar Putting in 37MW in New York

Michael Kanellos: March 11, 2009, 6:20 AM
The Long Island Power Authority will buy 37 megawatts of solar panels from BP Solar. The panels will be used to provide power to two locations of the Brookhaven National Labs. The deal will also be linked to a power purchase agreement. BP is one of the biggest solar producers in the world and is trying to be one of the early dominant players in copper-indium-selenide (CIS and often CIGS) solar panels. Still, the crunch has hit it too. Last October, it decided against building a silicon ingot factory. Instead of housing expensive manufacturing equipment, the building will hold offices.