Novel Display Technologies
The products that today account for most of the silver paste and inks consumed are not exactly the "hot" items of the electronics and electrical industry. Traditional capacitor and printed circuit board (PCB) markets grow at the same rate as the economy. Membrane switches are not as ubiquitous as they once were; we think they may see serious competition from touch screens in the future. Plasma displays continue to sell, but the PDP era will eventually pass and take with it the substantial silver paste orders, which certain major suppliers have counted on for a decade.
There are a few firms in the silver pastes business, Henkel and DuPont would be the obvious examples, that could probably make money in this space simply by milking the cash cow; that is, leveraging their established market positions, dialing back on marketing and relying on customers to come to them.
But having covered silver inks and pastes in our industry analyst reports for the last four years, NanoMarkets' analysts do not think we've reached the time yet for such desperate measures. In fact, we see a series of markets where we expect sales of silver inks and pastes to do quite well over the next few years. This article, which draws on NanoMarkets' ongoing research in this area, briefly profiles four of them.
It has been suggested that the use of silver nanopastes for creating electrodes for multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs) would lead to improved performance. But there may be a bigger opportunity emerging for silver in energy storage. There seems to be a growing role for supercapacitors in vehicles, consumer electronics, Smart Grid metering and the renewable energy sector. There are alternatives to using silver in supercapacitors, but printed silver's established role in the capacitor business will give it a leg up as the supercapacitor business rolls forward.
LCD displays with silicon TFT backplanes don't use much silver and they are likely to remain the dominant display technology for years to come. Nonetheless, in the past year or so, new display technologies that use, or are highly likely to use, printed silver have begun to appear as real products in the marketplace.
During 2009, OLED TVs appeared on the market for the first time. But the year of the worst recession in living memory was not the best year to start selling TVs retailing for several thousand dollars. We don't doubt that OLED TVs will be resurrected and when they do they may have an important use for silver. The experience with large OLED panels is that long passes of current through transparent conductors result in voltage drops that appear visibly as dimmed portions of the OLED. Distances of more than 10 cm or so between electrical connections can be problematic. Using silver (probably nanosilver inks) for printing bus bars at appropriate intervals enables larger OLEDs (ones suitable for TVs) without the dimming problem.
Silver may also have a growing role as an electrode material. For OLEDs, both big ones and small ones this time, silver would have an advantage over the conventional cathode materials such as calcium, which are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions. At least one OLED firm is using printed silver for this application, but how far this approach can penetrate the OLED industry remains an open question.
Perhaps a bigger opportunity lies in backplane electrodes. Silver has been the favored electrode material for organic TFTs (OTFTs) in the lab and the first commercial display with an OTFT backplane (in the Plastic Logic QUE e-book reader) will hit the market this year, suggesting that this lab scale use for silver is about to become a volume application.
Both U.S. and European energy efficiency legislation effectively bans the use of conventional incandescent light bulbs after 2012 or so. The immediate successor to these bulbs will be fluorescent lighting technology, but the use of mercury, quality of light and other factors imply that fluorescent will also eventually go away. The future belongs to solid-state lighting or more specifically inorganic LED and OLED lighting. OLED lighting panels, a business that NanoMarkets believes will soon be much larger than the OLED display market, will likely also require silver bus bars to create an even lighting effect.
A key trend in the PCB industry suggests another place where printed silver, especially printed nanosilver, may well find an opportunity. This trend is miniaturization. The miniaturization of electronic products continues to drive printed circuit board manufacturing toward smaller and more densely packed boards with increased electronic capabilities. In turn, PCB makers want to print very fine features via inkjet or other direct-write approaches. Another motivation for using printed silver in the PCB application is as a way to replace expensive/wasteful processes such as photolithography/etching, which are widely used in PCB manufacture. Finally, although silver inks will clearly have to compete with copper inks in this application, silver's higher effective conductivity would be regarded as an advantage where only fine lines were possible.
No one is seriously looking to the silver pastes and inks market for the next Microsoft, Cisco or Google. But the developments and trends analyzed above indicate that it is still possible to find new opportunities for silver inks and pastes. These opportunities are big enough apparently for start-up companies to receive funding in this space and for Xerox to announce with much fanfare last fall that it had developed a silver ink that cures at a low temperature and which would "push printed electronics towards ubiquity."
We also note that while other electronic materials, such as ITO, face a long-term threat from alternative materials promising improved performance, quantum mechanics assures us that silver is the best conductor there is.
Source: Silver Linings: Four Emerging Opportunities in the Silver Inks and Pastes Market
Author: Lawrence Gasman
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