Oerlikon Solar has lined up a key sales partner for its Asian market: Tokyo Electron.

Tokyo Electron, a long-time factory equipment developer in the semiconductor and flat-panel display industries, will provide sales, installation and related customer services for Oerlikon's solar factory equipment.

The relationship will bolster Oerlikon's presence in Asia, though the Swiss company has already lined up a number of Asian customers. It also announced the start of a research and development, as well as manufacturing, center in Singapore in January last year (see Q&A: Oerlikon CEO Plans Expansion into Asia, U.S. and Sun Well Rolls Out Thin-Film Panels).

Asia has been a solar panel manufacturing hub for the most common type of solar energy components. It already churned out the most crystalline silicon solar cells, which are then assembled into panels for installation. In 2008, the region produced 71 percent of crystalline silicon solar cells, and it could produce as much as 82 percent by 2012, according to a recent Greentech Media solar report (see Go East, Solar Companies).

Oerlikon is development equipment for making a type of thin films that use amorphous silicon as the key ingredient in converting sunlight into electricity. Worldwide production of amorphous-silicon thin film and panels, like other types of thin films that use little or no silicon, is small compared with crystalline silicon solar cells and panels.

Amorphous silicon panel manufacturing is expected to grow from an estimated 375 megawatts in 2008 to 3.5 gigawatts in 2012, according to the report.  Crystalline silicon panel production, meanwhile, is likely to increase from an estimated 5.8 gigawatts in 2008 to nearly 15.6 gigawatts in 2012.

Oerlikon is counting Tokyo Electron's decades-long experience in marketing and servicing its chip and flat panel display customers, two industries that share similar manufacturing processes with the solar industry. Tokyo Electron is the world's second-largest maker of semiconductor factory equipment.

Oerlikon is competing with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied Materials for customers in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Applied is the world's largest semiconductor factory equipment maker, and it entered the solar market in 2006.

Oerlikon isn't Tokyo Electron's first partner in the solar energy sector. Last year, Tokyo Electron announced a joint venture with Sharp called Tokyo Electron PV to developing factory tools for making thin-film solar cells.

Sharp also has been making solar thin films with a layer of amorphous silicon and another layer of microcrystalline silicon to boost the cells' ability to generate more electricity from the sunlight (see Sharp Guns for U.S. Thin-Film Market). 

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