Robert E. Lorenzini

Born: December 11, 1936 | Boston, MA, US

Robert E. Lorenzini discusses his childhood, early aptitude in engineering and science, and undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford University in materials science. After graduation, Lorenzini was recruited by Rheem Semiconductors, where his work led to Rheem's own crystal growing furnace and ability to produce its own silicon wafers; Lorenzini's time at Rheem was followed by stints at Allegheny Electronics Chemical Company, Knapic Electrophysics, and Elmat Corporation. Lorenzini reflects on his time at Siltec Corporation as Chairman and CEO, as well as his time at SunPower Corporation, which he founded with Stanford professor Richard Swanson. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0375
No. of pages: 32
Minutes: 83

Interview Sessions

Hyungsub Choi
17 September 2007
Menlo Park, California

Abstract of Interview

Robert Lorenzini begins the interview by briefly describing his childhood and studying metallurgy at Stanford University for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. After gradation Lorenzini was recruited by Rheem Semiconductors, where he adapted his master's thesis work on zone melting in metals to work with silicon. Lorenzini's efforts lead to Rheem's own crystal growing furnace and its ability to produce its own silicon wafers. Following brief stints at the Allegheny Electronics Chemical Company and Knapic Electrophysics, Lorenzini decided to capitalize on his reputation as a furnace designer and started Elmat Corporation. Building his first commercial furnace with a focus on speed and maximum operation uptime, Elmat quickly gained customers such as RCA and Texas Instruments. Elmat was eventually purchased by General Instruments in 1968 and Lorenzini founded the Siltec Corporation in 1969. With innovations such as the zero dislocation silicon technique Siltec quickly gained a stable costumer base. Lorenzini then described the delicate balance of working with supplying big semiconductor manufacturers with both equipment and silicon supplies. In the late 1980s, as the industry was going through a downturn, Siltec was acquired by Mitsubishi. Free to pursue other projects, Lorenzini got interested in photovoltaics and founded SunPower Corporation with Stanford professor Richard Swanson. Lorenzini concluded the interview by offering a positive outlook on the PV industry. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1958 Stanford University BS Materials Science
1960 Stanford University MS Materials Science

Professional Experience

Rheem Semiconductors

1960 to 1962
Member of Technical Staff, Research and Development

Allegheny Electronic Chemical Company

1962 to 1963
Chief Engineer

Knapic Electrophysics

1963 to 1964
Chief Engineer

Elmat Corporation

1964 to 1968

Siltec Corporation

1969 to 1986
Chairman and CEO

SunPower Corporation

1988 to 2004
CEO, Chairman


Year(s) Award

SEMI Award

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Early aptitude and interest in engineering and science. Moving from Boston to San Francisco to Evanston. Enrolling in Stanford University to study metallurgy.

Stanford University and Master's Thesis

Decision to stay at Stanford for graduate school. Curriculum and new research direction within the department. Thesis work on zone melting in metals.

Early career at Rheem Semiconductors and Allegheny Electronic Chemical Company

Recruitment by Leopoldo Valdes. Translating zone melting work from metals to silicon. Designing and building the crystal puller at Rheem. Pros and cons of flat zone method versus the Czochralski technique for crystal growing. Brief stint at Allegheny Electronic Chemical Company on the East Coast. Returning to Knapic Eletrophysics in California. Knapic's liquidation and purchasing part of its supplies for own startup.

Entrepreneurship with Elmat Corporation

Starting Elmat in 1964. Moving from RF to resistance heated growing furnaces. Designing a speed-oriented furnace. First Elmat customers and working relationships with them. SEMI standardization efforts. Basic Elmat operations. Dendritic germanium/ribbon growing technique. Purchase by General Instruments in 1968.

The Siltec Years

Developing the zero dislocation silicon technique. Competition and cooperation with bigger companies. Siltec company expansion model. Key technological advances during the Siltec years. Foreign competition and industry downturn. Siltec acquisition by Mitsubishi.

Venture Capital and Interests in Photovoltaics

Working with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and introduction to Richard Swanson. Raising capital to start SunPower Corporation. Application of semiconductor manufacturing techniques and equipment to photovoltaics. Outlook on the PV industry.


About the Interviewer

Hyungsub Choi

Hyungsub Choi is an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Seoul National University and was manager of the emerging technologies program at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, directing the Robert W. Gore Materials Innovation project. His training is in the history of science and technology, with specialties in recent developments in the fields of semiconductors, materials science, and nanotechnology. He has received degrees from Seoul National University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tokyo, Japan. Choi’s works have appeared in leading professional journals, such as Technology and Culture and Social Studies of Science.  Currently, he is preparing a book examining the history of the semiconductor industry in the United States and Japan.