Silver inks: The long-term trajectory of such products and markets is still very uncertain, but it is quite possible, as we have already noted, that they will end up using plenty of silver. In particular, we see the thin silver traces that OLED lighting and flexible displays might need as an opportunity for nanosilver inks. One reason for this is that historically nanosilver inks were developed specifically with these applications in mind. (This was the area that Cabot actively pursued when this company heavily marketed its silver inks for printed electronics a few years back.) It seems to be the applications not the inks that failed to emerge.
If some of the applications listed and hinted at above, take off, then a variety of opportunities open up for ink makers, including inks that are designed to work specifically with inkjet, gravure, flexographic, etc. Unfortunately, this is not exactly news. There are quite a few firms that have emerged in the past five to seven years with ambitions to supply novel silver inks fine-tuned to emerging applications. For the most part they have not found the market very encouraging. Some of these firms have already gone out of business and OLED lighting, flexible displays and the like might turn out to be their last best opportunity.
Prospects for Silver Inks and Pastes in Photovoltaic Panels
The solar panel industry was, for several years, one of the fastest growing sectors for printed silver; primarily because crystalline silicon solar panels use silver paste to create the front electrode. However, in the past few years a lot has happened to discourage manufacturers of silver inks and pastes in this sector:
• The newer thin-film PV technologies that are taking an ever greater share of the solar panel industry are less likely to use silver for electrodes;
• The badly depressed construction industry in much of the world has reduced many major addressable markets for solar panels generally;
• Governmental support in the form of consumer subsidies and loan guarantees is under considerable challenge around the world as governments look for areas to cut back on. This could have very serious consequences for firms selling materials into the PV sector. When Spain ended PV subsidies, the market in Spain lost 90 percent of its value.
All of this suggests that the opportunities available for suppliers of silver and silver products into the PV space are highly dependent on policy consideration, which should be judged a significant risk factor in view of the current worldwide financial problems. It also suggests that silver inks and pastes firms are not going to have it especially easy in the near future. There are some signs of hope though:
• The end of subsidies could be good news in the long run since it encourages market oriented PV technologies (although the near-term effects are certainly chilling).
• Silver inks and pastes used in crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV electrode fabrication make up the largest share of the PV market. We expect this sector to retain a strong position in the solar panel market, but expect growth rates in this sector to cool significantly.
• Silver ink manufacturers have developed silver ink products specifically for TFPV that help to address TFPV-specific challenges. It is also possible that next-generation PV technologies, not out the lab, may use silver.
PV of all kinds is very sensitive to materials costs, especially in the current era of collapsing solar panel prices. Therefore innovations to reduce the cost of the printed silver electrodes are going to be welcomed by the marketplace in the next few years. These innovations might include not only ways of making silver more effective as a conductor—such as through the use of nanosilver inks—but also through ways of using less silver in conventional inks and pastes.