Over the past few years, I've documented the efforts of big U.S. industrial conglomerates like General Electric (NYSE: GE), DuPont (NYSE: DD), and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) to grab a piece of the rapidly growing solar industry.

GE is focusing its energies on thin-film photovoltaics, and might eventually give First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) some meaningful competition in that area. Similarly, Dow is rolling out a solar shingle that could put Energy Conversion Devices (Nasdaq: ENER) in the hot seat. Between its solar modules, encapsulants, metallization pastes, and other products, DuPont is targeting more than $1 billion in PV-related sales by 2012.

Another company that I recently spotted in the solar space is 3M (NYSE: MMM). You probably know this company for its Post-It notes and Scotch tape, but don't let those low-tech products fool you. 3M is a materials science powerhouse. R&D spending in 2009 totaled $1.3 billion. SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA) expensed $31.6 million to R&D last year, so replicating that firm's spending level would bump 3M's R&D budget by less than 2.5%.

In February, 3M announced the creation of a new renewable energy division. This will house the firm's efforts in solar, wind, and other alternatives. In the solar area, 3M has products that address each flavor of solar, from mirror-based concentrating solar power to thin-film and crystalline silicon PV.

More recently, 3M signed a research agreement with NREL, the Department of Energy's renewable energy lab. That collaboration is going to be focusing on things like moisture barrier films for CIGS thin-film modules and reflective coatings for CSP mirrors. Another news item, which doesn't appear to have made it into an English press release, is that 3M joined the Desertec Industrial Initiative that First Solar, Siemens, and other heavyweights are a part of. You can read more about that initiative right here.

3M looks like it has a decent opportunity set in the solar space. Importantly, the company should be able to supply whoever wins the brutal battle for module market share. Whether these sales can really move the needle for such a huge firm, though, remains to be seen.

3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick and First Solar is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.