First the news...

Apollo Solar Energy (OTC: ASOE), a vertically integrated miner, refiner and producer of high purity tellurium (Te), announced a five-year purchase contract between Apollo Solar Energy and a major worldwide solar panel manufacturer.  According to an 8-K filing, that panel manufacturer is First Solar.

According to the contract, Apollo will provide 5N ultra-high purity tellurium, the core material of cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film solar photovoltaic panels, with a projected value of $110 million over five years.  We've looked at issues surrounding First Solar's tellurium supply here.

First Solar's panels are being used at the 16-megawatt Blue Wing installation in Texas. Mr. Kanellos reported on the firm's capacity expansion to 2.7 gigawatts here.  We covered their deal with SolarCity and Walmart here and their third quarter earnings here.

And now on to the rumors:

First Solar needs to keep the momentum in its relentless march to higher efficiencies and lower costs. That could mean new materials and new processes.  Here are some ways we've heard that they are working on it:

  • In one of Silicon Valley's poorest kept solar secrets, First Solar has established a CIGS skunk works.  We've learned that the head count of that operation is in the range of 80 people and that the firm is starting to solidify its CIGS process.  Markus Beck left his role as Chief Scientist at CIGS aspirant, Solyndra, to join First Solar in January of last year, as reported by Michael Kanellos.  If the firm could arrive at a high-efficiency CIGS process that would drop into its existing copy-smart lines -- the First Solar CdTe efficiency levels might get a jump start from their current 11.3 percent. The rate of improvement in efficiency levels seems to be slowing down significantly.
  • We've heard from a number of sources that the firm will be bumping up its glass substrate size and testing that form factor at U.S. manufacturing sites in 2011.
  • And lastly -- and note that this has not been confirmed by First Solar -- we've heard from reliable sources that in its effort to improve the somewhat stalled efficiency trajectory of its CdTe panels, First Solar has gone so far as to experiment with the addition of mercury (Hg) in its PV panels.  CdTe can be alloyed with Hg to vary the bandgap of the compound.  First Solar declined to comment.