Supply Threats Persist For Thin-Film Solar Materials Due To Competition

One year ago, a report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the global supply of essential PV module materials predicted possible disruptions for thin-film manufacturing.

The availability of indium, gallium and tellurium was examined in the context of current and future production needs, and the DOE found cause for concern. Indium and tellurium were pegged as especially vulnerable to supply tightness and price volatility, according to both the report and several market analysts at the time.

(See “New Government Report Identifies Supply Risks For Thin-Film PV Materials” in the February 2011 issue of Solar Industry.)

Now, the DOE has released the latest edition of its Critical Materials Strategy. Have the worries over thin-film PV materials supply eased? According to the DOE, the general supply-demand picture for indium, gallium and tellurium has “improved slightly,” but the situation is not entirely reassuring. The three metals are still highlighted (alongside neodymium and dysprosium) as clean-energy materials that face a “significant risk of supply chain bottlenecks in the next two decades.”

The report attributes the slight improvement primarily to decreased demand for the three thin-film materials: Although PV deployment is expected to grow, the requirements of the materials per module are expected to shrink.

For copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) modules, manufacturers are shifting to compositions with higher proportions of gallium and lower concentrations of indium, the DOE says. The result is a “partial trade-off in the potential for supply risk between the two elements.” At the same time, CIGS’ market share assumption has been reduced under the DOE’s new calculations, lowering projected demand for both indium and gallium.

Cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film modules currently account for approximately 10% of the PV market, according to the report. Declining silicon prices may threaten this slice of the market, but high tellurium costs and the increasing need for CdTe manufacturers to compete for supply with non-PV companies requiring tellurium continue to cause supply headaches.

“The cost of tellurium is a critical issue for CdTe solar cell makers, and the industry is working to lower material use and increasing recovery of new scrap to reduce reliance on primary tellurium,” the DOE says in the report.

Although short-term supply of tellurium appears adequate, future capacity increases may be insufficient to supply both CdTe manufacturing and the multitude of other manufacturing sectors that use tellurium. Under one scenario modeled in the report, tellurium supply would need to increase 50% more than its projected 2015 total in order to meet expected demand.

Indium and gallium have also experienced increased popularity in non-PV manufacturing uses, such as semiconductor applications, flat-panel displays, and coatings for smartphones and tablet computers. The DOE forecasts that as a result, supplies may run short by 2015 unless production of these materials is increased - or non-PV demand lessens.

Of the two metals, gallium poses more cause for concern, as the DOE has adjusted its assumptions of future gallium use under CIGS manufacturers’ expected manufacturing modifications.

“These higher estimates [of gallium requirements] are driven largely by the assumption that gallium will increasingly be substituted for indium in CIGS composition,” the DOE explains. This change points to the benefits of reducing material intensity in other aspects of PV manufacturing, such as reducing cell thickness and improving processing efficiency.

Overall, indium, gallium and tellurium all receive moderate scores (2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 4) from the DOE with regard to both their importance to clean energy and short- and medium-term supply risk.

In order to help mitigate possible supply disruptions that could threaten the manufacturing and deployment of PV, as well as other types of clean energy, the agency has developed a three-pronged approach.

“First, diversified global supply chains are essential,” the DOE stresses in the report. “To manage supply risk, multiple sources of materials are required. This means taking steps to facilitate extraction, processing and manufacturing here in the United States, as well as encouraging other nations to expedite alternative supplies.”

The second strategy relies on developing alternatives to materials whose supply may be constrained. For PV, one DOE research program focuses on advancements in thin-film formulations such as copper-zinc-tin and sulfide-selenide. Another initiative funds research and development into PV inks based on earth-abundant materials such as zinc, sulfur and copper.

“Several projects also seek to use iron pyrite - also known as fool’s gold - to develop prototype solar cells,” the DOE notes in the report. “Pyrite is non-toxic, inexpensive, and is the most abundant sulfide mineral in the Earth’s crust.”

Finally, improving recycling and reuse mechanisms can reduce demand for new materials, the DOE says, adding that these strategies also can help improve the sustainability of manufacturing processes.

Source: http://www.aer-online.com/e107_plugins/content/content.php?content.9408

Photo: Enbridge Inc.’s 5 MW Tilbury solar project in Ontario uses First Solar’s cadmium telluride thin-film modules. Photo credit: Enbridge

Gallium Helping Us Stay Connected

Rare Earth Metal - Gallium

The element so instrumental in the success of CIGS or Copper Indium Gallium Selenide solar panels garners little respect. If you do some research on Gallium you will see very few articles on this element. What you see is people talking about how to make melting spoons, and talk of the metal melting in your hand due to its low melting point of 85° F or 29.8° C. Here we are going to go over the history of Gallium and its uses in technology today.

Gallium has the symbol of Ga and the atomic number 31 on the periodic table of the elements. In 1875 Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered Gallium spectroscopically. He saw Gallium´s characteristic two violet lines. Gallium does not occur free in nature. Lecoq was able to obtain the free element using electrolysis.

Gallium is found in bauxite, sphalerite and coal. It is primarily extracted from Aluminum and Zinc production. The exact amounts mined and recycled are very difficult to quantify. According to the United States Geological Survey the total amount mined in 2010 was approximately 106 t and the total recycled was approximately 78 t. Gallium supply is highly reliant on other Aluminum and Zinc mining for its supply, when the prices of the base metals fall the amount of Gallium available will be highly affected. Similar to other rare industrial metals, mining companies will not invest in the production of these metals because the markets are so small.

The uses of Gallium are found all around you. Semiconductors, LED´s, medicine, electronic components, CIGS solar and new tech like IGZO (Indium, Gallium, Zinc and Oxygen) LCD screens. The new iPhone 5 will have this kind of LCD. Over 90% is used in electronic components in the form GaAs (Gallium Arsenide). Recently CIGS solar panels reached an unprecedented 20.3% efficiency once again proving that CIGS is the most efficient form of solar on the market. The technology that will greatly increase the use of Gallium is smartphones. Analysts predict that smartphone use will grow at a rate of 15-25% over the next several years. Recently LED´s backlit screen TV´s and computer monitors have been all the rage. The LED screen market will continue to grow, further putting strain on the small Gallium supply.

The top producers of Gallium are China, Kazakhstan and Germany. Once again China has a strong position in the production of a rare industrial metal. The difference with Gallium is that almost 40% of the metal produced every year is coming from recycling.

With all of the new technologies coming along using Gallium what will the market for this metal look like in a few years? Unlike some metals like Silver and Gold, Gallium is not traded on the LME (London Metal Exchange). This makes the price of Gallium very stable. Rare industrial or technical metals are small markets with big possibilities. So if you are looking for an investment that is rarely talked about, Gallium could be a good option.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Rare Earth Elements are not the same as Rare Industrial Metals

Randy Hilarski has also released a video on this article that can be watched by clicking here.

I read articles from other writers who often refer to Rare Industrial or Technical Metals as Rare Earth elements. I would like to take some time and clear up the issue. I deal with RIM’s and REE´s on a daily basis. The two might both be considered metals but that is where the similarities end.

First we have REE´s or Rare Earth Elements. These metals consist of 17 metals, the Lanthanides plus Scandium and Yttrium on the periodic table of the elements. These metals are in a powder form, making them difficult to assay and store. One important factor that is often mentioned is that they are not rare. This is very true, but finding REE´s in large deposits is difficult.

In the mining sector REE mines are standalone mines, that focus on the mining and refining of REE´s exclusively. Currently around 97% of all REE´s are mined and refined in China. Historically REE mining and refining has been a dirty business, which has affected the environment around the mines. The elements Thorium and Uranium are often found along with the REE´s in the deposits causing the slurry to be slightly radioactive when processed. The use of highly toxic acids during the processing can also have serious environmental impact. Many companies are trying to open REE mines but they are meeting headwinds, as nations and people do not want these mines in their backyard.

Over the last few years China has dramatically cut its export of REE´s. This and the increased need for REE´s have caused a meteoric rise in the value of these metals. The one area that very few people talk about is the role of the media combined with speculators in raising the value of REE ETF´s in particular. For the last couple years REE´s were the rock stars of the metals. The news has calmed as of late, but the supply and demand factors that caused the metals to soar are still in place. Recently China closed it BaoTao mine until REE prices stabilize.

Rare Industrial Metals, RIM´s or Technical metals are another group entirely. The RIM´s are made up of metals used in over 80% of all products we use on a daily basis. Without these metals you would not have the world of the 21st century with our mobile phones, hybrid cars, flat screen TV´s, highly efficient solar energy and computers. Some of these metals include Indium, Tellurium, Gallium, Tantalum and Hafnium. These metals really are rare compared to the Rare Earth Metals which causes a great deal of confusion. These metals are in a metallic form, stable and easy to store and ship.

RIM´s are mined as a by-product of base or common metal mining. For example Tellurium is a by-product of Copper mining and Gallium is a by-product of Aluminum and Zinc mining. The mining of the RIM´s currently are for the most part at the mercy of the markets for the base or common metal mining. If the Copper mines of the world decide to cut production due to Copper losing value, this will have a huge impact on the amount of Tellurium that can be refined. Up until now, because of the previous small size of the RIM market, many companies do not feel the need to invest money into better technology to mine and refine these metals. The RIM´s would have to be valued much higher to gain the attention of the mining industry.

When China cut exports of REE´s they also cut exports of RIM´s. This put pressure on the value of these metals. RIM´s have increased in value, but nowhere near the meteoric rise of the REE´s. Most of the metals increased in value around 47% in 2010 and 25% so far in 2011. There is still a lot of room for growth in the value of these metals (not based on speculation like REE´s) as demand is exceeding supply now and in the future.

For Example, when REE´s and the stock market recently fell sharply the RIM´s came down slightly in value but have held their own extremely well. On a further note, according to Knut Andersen of Swiss Metal Assets, ¨Even though prices of the Rare Industrial Metals continue to go up in value, consumers will eventually only see a very small increase in the price of the end products, because there is so little of each metal used to produce these products. Also if the people can´t afford a smartphone they will still buy less expensive phones that still use the same Rare Industrial Metals¨.

The need for RIM´s has risen sharply over the years and will continue to grow at astronomical rates. China, India, South America and the whole of Africa with hundreds of millions of new consumers are now buying and using computers and mobile phones to name just a few products.

The future is bright for the technologies and the Rare Industrial Metals that make them work and for anyone who participates in stockpiling these metals now to meet future increased demand.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

U.S. Preparing for the Coming Shortages in Metals and Minerals

Many if not most metals, rare earth minerals and other elements used to make everything from photovoltaic panels and cellphone displays to the permanent magnets in cutting edge new wind generators and motors will become limited in availability. Geologists are warning of shortages and bottlenecks of some metals due to an insatiable demand for consumer products.

 2010 saw China restrict the export of neodymium, which is used in wind generators and motors. The move was said to direct the supplies toward a massive wind generation project within China. What happened was a two-tiered price for neodymium formed, one inside China and another, higher price, for the rest of the world.

Dr. Gawen Jenkin, of the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, and the lead convenor of the Fermor Meeting of the Geological Society of London that met to discuss this issue is reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, highlighting the dangers in the inexorable surge in demand for metals.

Dr Jenkin said: “Mobile phones contain copper, nickel, silver and zinc, aluminum, gold, lead, manganese, palladium, platinum and tin. More than a billion people will buy a mobile in a year — so that’s quite a lot of metal. And then there’s the neodymium in your laptop, the iron in your car, the aluminum in that soft drinks can — the list goes on…”

Jenkin continues, “With ever-greater use of these metals, are we running out? That was one of the questions we addressed at our meeting. It is reassuring that there’s no immediate danger of ‘peak metal’ as there’s quite a lot in the ground, still — but there will be shortages and bottlenecks of some metals like indium due to increased demand. That means that exploration for metal commodities is now a key skill. It’s never been a better time to become an economic geologist, working with a mining company. It’s one of the better-kept secrets of employment in a recession-hit world.”

There’s a “can’t be missed” clue on education and employment prospects. “And a key factor in turning young people away from the large mining companies — their reputation for environmental unfriendliness — is being turned around as they make ever-greater efforts to integrate with local communities for their mutual benefit,” said Jenkin.

Among the basics that need to be grasped to understand the current state of affairs are how rare many metals, minerals and elements really are. Some are plentiful, but only found in rare places or are difficult to extract. Indium, for instance, is a byproduct of zinc mining and extraction.

Economics professor Roderick Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines explains at the U.S. Geological Survey meeting indium is not economically viable to extract unless zinc is being sought in the same ore. Others are just plain scarce, like rhenium and tellurium, which only exist in very small amounts in Earth’s crust.

There are two fundamental responses to this kind of situation: use less of these minerals or improve the extraction of them from other ores in other parts of the world. The improved extraction methods seem to be where most people are heading.

Kathleen Benedetto of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Committee on Natural Resources, U.S. House of Representatives explains the Congress’ position for now by saying in a report abstract, “China’s efforts to restrict exports of mineral commodities garnered the attention of Congress and highlighted the need for the United States to assess the state of the Nation’s mineral policies and examine opportunities to produce rare earths and other strategic and critical minerals domestically. Nine bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to address supply disruptions of rare earths and other important mineral commodities.”

Another prominent session presenter Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey adds in her report abstract, “Deposits of rare earth elements and other critical minerals occur throughout the Nation.” That information puts the current events in the larger historical perspective of mineral resource management, which has been the U.S. Geological Survey’s job for more than 130 years. McNutt points out something interested citizens should be aware of, “The definition of ‘a critical mineral or material’ is extremely time dependent, as advances in materials science yield new products and the adoption of new technologies result in shifts in both supply and demand.”

The geopolitical implications of critical minerals have started bringing together scientists, economists and policy makers. Monday Oct 10th saw the professors presenting their research alongside high-level representatives from the U.S. Congress and Senate, the Office of the President of the U.S., the U.S. Geological Survey, in a session at the meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.

Those metals, rare earth minerals and elements are basic building materials for much of what makes energy efficiency, a growing economy, lots of employment and affordable technology possible. Its good to see some action, if it’s only talking for now. At least the people who should be keeping the system working are sensing the forthcoming problem.

Source: OilPrice.com

Metals Through the Roof

Speakers at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town this week seemed as one in warning of a near-term supply-demand squeeze and some solid price increases for a swathe of metals.

They made the point that China and India will be central to minerals demand growth. And among the so-called rare-earth metals that are crucial to many of today’s high-tech products, China is the leading producer and is curbing exports unless they are already processed into manufactured products. As consultant Jack Lifton saw it, stronger demand has not (and cannot) lead to greater production.

Many of the metals that are needed for items such as solar panels, super-conductors and jet engines are produced as by-products of lead, zinc, copper, manganese or aluminium mining. There is no chance of increasing production of indium, gallium, germanium, rhenium, thorium and tellurium from primary mines.

It is not the same for copper, the metal showing the second-highest price increase over the past year, lead was first and zinc third. These are metals that better reflect the state of demand in the real economy.

Chinese demand is growing and, there are supply constraints. New mines cannot be brought on stream at the flick of a switch. Iron ore is in much the same boat. Price rises will be far more restrained than they were a year or two ago.

Chinese indium export policies pushing price over $1000/kg

Indium is heading for prices of more than $1000/kg, according to industry analyst firm NanoMarkets in a new report “€˜Chinese Indium Strategies: Threats and Opportunities for Displays, Photovoltaics and Electronics”€™, which examines the impact on the electronics and related materials industries of recent Chinese policies to restrict the export of indium. Even higher prices have been suggested in the Chinese press — as much as $3000/kg.

China is the world’€™s largest supplier of indium by far, accounting for almost three-quarters of world reserves and about half of production. As such, its policies affect the markets for all indium-related electronic materials.

This activity has recently been formalized in a new Chinese five-year plan, which is designed to stimulate domestic Chinese high-tech industries. NanoMarkets claims that this move by the Chinese government will have significant negative implications for several classes of electronics products (in the areas of displays, lighting, photovoltaics, compound semiconductor chips, lead-free solders). The report therefore examines China’€™s evolving indium policy in both economic and political terms and explains how it will act as a catalyst for creating new growth opportunities in both the extraction industry and advanced electronic materials industries worldwide, looking especially at the impact on markets for novel transparent conductors and compound semiconductors.

In particular, high indium prices may force the conservative display industry to shift to ITO alternatives, especially those using nanomaterials, believes NanoMarkets.

Japanese indium users€”, who currently use 70% of China’€™s indium production,€” may find themselves without sufficient indium within a year. As a result, NanoMarkets expects firms in countries that have not been large suppliers of indium (including Australia, Canada, Laos and Peru) to rush into the market.

NanoMarkets also predicts that, for the first time, there will be significant amounts of indium extraction from sources other than zinc mines (e.g. sources such as tin and tungsten mining). The Chinese indium policy seems certain to incentivize new sources outside China to produce indium, either through primary extraction methods or through recycling/reclamation, the firm reckons.

Also, a sharp rise in the price of indium will harm the resurgent copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) photovoltaic (PV) industry, but in turn this will open the door for cadmium telluride (CdTe) and crystalline silicon (c-Si) PVs, which will become more price competitive, says NanoMarkets. In addition, new classes of absorber materials (zinc or tin) may emerge that are CIGS-like but don’€™t actually use indium.

Silver Brighter future than gold

20 Dec, 2010, 02.45AM IST, Vivek Kaul and Prashant Mahesh,ET Bureau
Silver: Brighter future than gold?

You’d probably laugh it off if someone claimed silver is the hottest metal, given gold’s runaway prices. Since the beginning of the year gold is up about 20%. Silver, in the same period, has given a whopping 60% return. “This relative outperformance will continue,” says Vijay Bhambwani, CEO, BSPLindia.com.

Silver price is at a 30-year high of $30 an ounce (Rs 45,665 per kg). Let us do a quick analysis to find out if you should invest in it.

Riding on high demand: Silver has more industrial applications than any other metal. A recent report by Hinde Capital says: “It’s the best conductor of both heat and electricity, the most reflective, and second-most ductile and malleable element, after gold.” The white metal is also being put to several new uses-water purification, air-handling systems and a natural biocide.

“New products using silver’s biocidal qualities are being developed each year; clothing, bandages, toothbrushes, door-knobs (flu-protection), keyboards, the list goes on,” Hinde Capital report points out.

On supply side, things are grim: Silver analyst Theodore Butler at Butler Research says, “Silver inventories are down from 10 billion ounce in 1940 to 1 billion ounce today. Gold inventories, in contrast, are up 4 billion ounce since 1940, according to World Gold Council.” The world has five times more gold than silver, he says. Though this may be extreme, it’s true that silver will soon become scarce. Jeff Nielson, editor, Bullionbullscanada.com says he would side with a more conservative 6:1 gold silver ratio. “This is small enough, given the 47:1 price ratio.”

Also even though the earth’s crust has 17.5 more silver than gold, production of silver cannot be ramped up overnight. Almost two-thirds of the silver that is mined comes as a byproduct from mining of metals like copper, lead and zinc. So it isn’t easy to ramp up production straight away. Data from the silver institute suggests silver mine production rose 4% to 709.6 million ounce in 2009.

No recycling of silver: Silver recycling isn’t always possible primarily because it is used in very small quantities as an industrial metal, and not always monetarily viable to recycle. Even at its current price, recycling doesn’t make sense. As Nielson pus it, “We must remember that virtually all the gold in the world has been conserved (recycled) because it’s high value economically justified recycling. So, may be when silver advances to somewhere between $50 and $100 an ounce, we should start to see much more recycling.”

High price in short and long term: Mismatch between price and demand makes silver a great long-term bet. “For most of the last 5,000 years, gold silver price ratio averaged 15:1. The current ratio of over 45:1 is unjustified and unsustainable,” says Neilson. The logic behind this is that silver is roughly 17 times more plentiful than gold (though its supply is rising at a lower pace). So with current gold price at about $1,400 an ounce, silver should be around $93 an ounce. That’s nearly three times silver’s current price. If market corrects this ratio and silver price rises to this level, it’s a huge bounty for investors. As Butler says, “I’ll be amazed if we don’t climb past $100 an ounce in the next three to five years. The amazing thing is, despite silver [prices] being up five times from its lows of about $4 an ounce, the current investment thesis is better than ever. That’s because silver is getting greater investor awareness.”

Prospects are high in the short term too. “In the next couple of months, silver could trade between Rs 46,000 and Rs 47,000 a kg,” says Rakesh Varasia, research officer, Indian Bullion Metal Association. “Inventories are so severely stressed that the next spike in 2011 will most likely take silver to or above $50 an ounce (about Rs 75,000 a kg),” adds Nielson.

Gold goes up, silver follows: Gold prices have been going up for a while given countries around the world either printing money or threatening to do so, leading to investors betting on gold. “Relentless debasing of fiat currencies will inflate gold further,” says Bhambwani of BSPLindia.com. His views are echoed by Ritesh Jain, head, fixed income at Canara Robeco Mutual Fund. “Silver is seen to be a poor cousin of gold. If gold prices rise, silver will follow closely,” he says.

How to buy silver: The simplest way is to buy silver is through silver exchange-traded funds. But they’re not available in India. You can always buy bars and coins but storing them can be a problem. The most practical solution is to buy e-silver. E-silver was launched recently by National Spot Exchange. This is similar to buying shares and holding them in a demat form.

National Spot Exchange has 370 brokers and 40 depository participants (DPs) empanelled on it. All you’ve to do is approach your broker and sign a client registration form, one-time cost of which is Rs 100. Annual depository maintainence charges could be between Rs 300 and Rs 600 a year.

Whenever you transact, the brokerage charge is between 0.25% and 0.50%, and depository transaction fee is Rs 25-50 per transaction. For physical delivery of the metal, you have to pay Rs 200. Currently silver is delivered at National Spot Exchange centres in Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

But even in this case, investors need to be careful not bet all their money on silver. “Since silver is a volatile commodity, retail investors should invest through the systematic investment plan route,” says Karun Verma, senior research analyst, Religare Commodities.

Forget oil, Indium may be the next most precious resource

by Thomas J Thompson on October 30, 2010

Indium Ingots

I will grant you that Indium finger isn’€™t a good title for a Bond movie, but Indium may certainly be worth hoarding.

Let’s start with the basics. Indium is a chemical element with chemical symbol In and atomic number 49. It is rare, very soft, malleable and is easily fusible. It is a post-transitional metal that is chemically similar to aluminum or gallium. Zinc ores are the primary source of indium and is named for the indigo blue line in its spectrum that was the first indication of its existence in ores, as a new and unknown element.

Here€™s why it’€™s important€“ today’€™s mobile touchscreen gadgets, along with all liquid crystal displays, rely on it, and it could be gone within the decade.

Indium is the principal component in indium tin oxide (ITO). ITO has unique qualities that make it unique. It is a rare example of a material that is both electrically conducting and optically transparent, which means it does not absorb photons of light. Absorption occurs when a photon’€™s energy matches that needed to knock an electron into an excited state. In a metallic conductor, where there is a free-flowing “€œsea”€ of electrons with many different energy states, his almost always happens. Accordingly, almost all metals are highly absorbing and entirely opaque. Not so ITO. It is transparent like glass, but also conducts.

ITO changed the way touchscreen works. The common methods, prior to ITO, were to use infrared LEDs ranged around the screen to fire beams that are blocked by a touch, but those were bulky and required a lot of power to run; or to use a stylus and two layers of ITO separated by a slight gap. Tapping this resistive screen with the stylus brought the two layers together, allowing a current to pass. New touchscreen devices utilize the fact that your finger is conductive to do away with the stylus. Touching the screen changes its capacitance at that location, a change picked up by a single layer of ITO.

The problem is that no one is sure how much indium there is left. The US Geological Survey estimates that known reserves of indium worldwide amount to 16,000 tons (63% in China). At the current rate of consumption, those reserves will be exhausted by 2020. Those numbers don’t take into account recycling or any new sources of indium. According to Indium Corporation, the largest processor of indium, claims that, on the basis of increasing recovery yields during extraction, recovery from a wider range of base metals (including tin, copper and other polymetallic deposits) and new mining investments, the long-term supply of indium is sustainable, reliable and sufficient to meet increasing future demands.

According to James Mitchell Crow writing in New Scientist magazine, the increasing demands for ITO promise to make ITO rare and, therefore, more expensive. The touchscreen market is currently projected at $1.47 billion and will balloon to $2.5 billion by 2017. This means that the race to find a replacement for ITO are on! Some of the replacements under consideration are zinc oxide, but it’€™s not as conductive, transparent or physically resilient as ITO. Another consideration is to stretch the current reserves of indium by mixing it with cadmium oxide. Doing so may reduce the amount of indium necessary per screen by 80%. Unfortunately, cadmium is highly toxic and prone to cracking. More futuristic thoughts include the development of conducting polymers, but these are often prone to ultraviolet light and oxygen.

So is it the end of the touchscreen era? Probably not €“ thanks to nanotechnology.

One solution may be carbon nanotubes. Carbon is a chemical chameleon. In some guises, it is the most light-absorbing material known. Pare it down to nanoscale structures, however, and it becomes transparent. Carbon nanotubes are essentially graphene sheets rolled up into tiny cylinders. Graphene, the wonder material behind the award of this year’€™s Nobel prize in physics, consists of sheets of graphite just a single atom thick. The problem is that individual nanotubes are highly conductive, but the electrons racing across their surface stop dead when they get to the end of a nanotube and have to jump to the next.

Another idea may be metal nanowires. Experiments with silver nanowires have shown transparency of 85 percent and a conductivity only a fraction behind that of ITO. Unfortunately, silver nanowires are 10 times as expensive to produce as top-grade ITO. Other concepts include a mechanical switch behind every pixel, registering the force as the screen is touched, but using pressure-sensing technology means doing away with the protective glass cover, making it more susceptible to damage. Another possibility is an optical technology that incorporates a light-detecting element into each pixel. These light sensors turn the screen into a scanner that can detect and follow a finger. However, it needs significant processing power to continually analyze the screen surface and works only a quarter as fast as a traditional laptop touchpad.

In any case, such innovations do not address the more fundamental problem that, touch or no touch, the electrodes that supply power to the pixels of LCD displays themselves depend on ITO. That will be solved only by the development of new materials that mimic ITO’€™s intensely desirable combination of transparency and conductivity.