IBM has joined forces with semiconductor process company Tokyo Ohka Kogyo to develop more efficient solar power technologies to cut the cost of the clean energy source, the companies said on Monday.
The move is the latest by large technology companies to enter the burgeoning field of photovoltaic solar products, which turn sunlight into electricity without releasing the pollutants that are emitted from coal, oil and nuclear power generation.
International Business Machines Corp will contribute its expertise in manufacturing cells, while TOK will bring its technology used in the semiconductor industry and for coating LCD panels.
The partnership is seeking to create techniques that double the efficiency of thin film solar modules, making them capable of converting more of the sun's rays into electricity.
IBM Research's Supratik Guha, who leads its solar photovoltaic activities, said the companies do not plan to enter the solar module production business, but hope to license their technology to producers in the next two to three years.
"We've already been in discussions with photovoltaic manufacturers," Guha told Reuters in an interview.
"There are problems to be resolved," he said, "but this is the time we're starting to talk to them."
The partnership will focus on developing new methods for printing copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) cells that can turn more than 15 percent of sunlight into power -- a significant improvement on the 6 per cent to 12 percent efficiency that current solar CIGS makers have achieved in their fabrication plants.
Guha declined to specify the companies' projected sales from the technology that will come from their link-up, but described the potential market as "huge."
Currently, an estimated 90 per cent of photovoltaic solar equipment uses silicon to turn sunlight into electricity. That technology is more efficient than CIGS, often converting more than 20 percent of sunlight into power.
But those cells are much thicker than thin-film applications, limiting how they can be deployed, and they rely on silicon, which has skyrocketed in price in recent years as the solar industry gobbled up limited supplies.
IBM looked into various solar technologies before settling on CIGS, Guha said, "Traditional silicon is a very mature field already, the scope for dramatic improvement is probably not there," he said. "We felt that this is where we could make a bigger impact."
Researchers at the US Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced in April they had set a new efficiency record of 19.9 per cent for CIGS cells, nearing the record for multicrystalline silicon cells of 20.3 per cent.
However, no company has yet to near that CIGS record on the factory floor, where cells must be quickly mass produced in a cost effective manner.
Guha said the goal of the partnership was to create a process for making the cells cheaply enough that they reach "grid parity," the level in which solar power is competitive with traditional forms of electricity generation.
"I think that if we can get to a module cost of less than $1 per watt, and be able to keep a handle on the system costs, then one should be able to get to grid parity ... photovoltaics still need roughly a 2 (times efficiency) improvement," he said.
"We strongly feel that we have a shot."