By Michael Kanellos
Micron Technology (NASDAQ:MU), one of the biggest names in computer memory, has formed exploratory groups to see if it can take its chip-making know-how into solar panels and light emitting diodes.
In solar, the company has formed a joint venture with Origin Energy to examine the possibility of getting into photovoltaics. Solar panels, after all, consist of semiconductors and some of the equipment and processes deployed to make chips overlap with solar manufacturing.
There is particularly strong overlap in LCD manufacturing and thin film solar panels, according to some. That partly explains why Samsung, the biggest TV maker in the world, has stated that it wants to be the biggest solar manufacturer in the world by 2015. Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT), which makes semiconductor manufacturing equipment, started selling solar panel manufacturing tools in 2006 and has invested in battery and lighting companies.
Several chip makers--Toshiba (OTCPK:TOSBF), Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (NYSE:TSM), for example--have also recently said they want to expand or enter into the market for LEDs, which are chips that generate light.
How well Micron's skills can transfer will be one of the big questions Micron will likely try to answer in this exploratory phase. Micron specializes in DRAM, the type of memory found inside your computer, and flash, found in cell phones and other consumer electronics. DRAM and flash are largely based around silicon. LEDs typically involve different materials. LCD manufacturing also differs from the processes deployed for making computer chips. Thus, Micron likely doesn't have the luxury of direct translation. Still, memory is a huge volume business where keeping costs low remains paramount, so Micron's factory management acumen should apply directly to any solar or LED effort.
Interestingly, memory and solar can overlap. Numonyx, a joint venture created by Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and STMicroelectronics (NYSE:STM), has begun to produce a type of memory called ovonic unified memory, which shares characteristics with amorphous silicon. In fact, Stan Ovshinski, who founded amorphous solar maker Energy Conversion, coined the term 'ovonic memory.'
Don't expect Micron to talk much about this. Micron generally shies away from publicity or giving strategic vision speeches. If anything, a push into solar or LEDs could bring some jobs to the States. Micron has been relatively adamant about expanding jobs in the U.S. and most of its operations are in fact in this country. The company started in the basement of a dentist's office in Boise decades ago. Early backers included J.R. Simplot, the potato giant.