Silver Inks and Pastes Resurgence?
Published: June 10, 2014 Category: Advanced Materials

The environment has changed since NanoMarkets last published a report on silver inks and pastes. We think that current trends in silver inks and pastes markets will change the opportunities available to suppliers and shift their focus going forward.  

New opportunities in photovoltaics: The crystalline silicon (C-Si) PV market became the single biggest user of conventional silver pastes in 2011, but first the rise of thin-film PV and then the bursting of the PV bubble has threatened silver paste sales in the PV market.

That situation has now changed for the better from the perspective of the silver paste suppliers.  As the PV industry has emerged from its slump, c-Si has regained dominance.  This is good news for printed silver suppliers because, even though we are seeing a trend toward using less silver in c-Si panels, the increased PV capacity worldwide means more revenue opportunities for companies that supply materials for panels. 

Another good piece of news is that the collapse of PV prices has ended and in fact the price of c-Si panels has begun to rise a bit.  This makes panel makers a little less likely to go in search of alternatives to silver.  Meanwhile, silver paste suppliers are responding to opportunities in PV by expanding their offerings to this sector and tailoring materials to meet the requirements of today’s cell and panel designs.  The bottom line is that prospects for sales into the PV sector are reasonably good.

All this is very good news for the paste suppliers.  But the renaissance of c-Si does not mean that they are home free.  It seems highly likely that thin-film PV technologies (notably CIGS) will reassert itself in the next few years.  And, as already noted, the solar panel industry is seeking out new ways to reduce its use of silver.

Dropping silver prices: Although all serious players in the silver inks and pastes market hedge by buying and selling silver futures, there is no doubt that big price changes in the silver markets can impact the silver pastes and inks markets.

Silver prices dropped dramatically in 2013, ending the year near $20 per troy ounce, and they have hovered around that range since. 

Facing what looked to be an extended period of high silver prices, over $30 per troy ounce, nearly all major silver ink and paste suppliers have emphasized products with lower silver content while maintaining high (and sometimes improved) performance. So they face a marketing issue as to whether to continue to push these products in a different economic environment or revert to a more silver-centric strategy.

While silver could decline further in price there seems to be something of a consensus that prices will begin to rise again. If this is the case, despite temporarily lower silver prices, business conditions for materials with a lower silver content should remain excellent. Customers also probably see them as better options, especially in the long run. 

The case for nanosilver: For many years, nanosilver inks and pastes was touted as a strategic alternative to conventional silver inks and pastes because it can deliver higher performance with lower silver content.  In addition, during the big printed electronics bubble of several years back, printed nanosilver traces were seen as the way to create interconnects of various kinds.

These earlier hopes for nanosilver inks and pastes seem to have faded.  There is some evidence that nanosilver pastes have been used in the Asian display industry, but no evidence that this has been widespread.  The problem has been that the total cost of nanomaterials is not lower, because any cost savings from using less silver is offset by the higher cost of developing and producing the nanosilver inks and pastes. In addition, the original conception of printed electronics has all but gone away and no longer represents an obvious opportunity.

In the past couple of years, NanoMarkets had come to believe that nanosilver inks would find their niche as a research material and would have few other opportunities.  But we are now seeing signs that nanosilver may be on the rise. DuPont has introduced nanosilver inks specifically geared toward the OLED lighting market, but also for applications such as wearable electronics and sensors. 

With an industry giant like DuPont pursuing nanosilver, the industry needs to take notice. And one possible takeaway is that the high hopes of a decade ago that nanosilver inks would be a key material for the prophesied printed electronics “revolution,” may now be in the process of transferring to a future wearables and IoT revolution.  

So NanoMarkets now we sees reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of nanosilver. The future of nanosilver is in no way guaranteed, but it is looking less uncertain that it did a year ago. In order for nanosilver to move from R&D into commercial production, however, the focus needs to be on performance rather than price and therefore on applications that are not extremely cost-sensitive. 

Continuing Prospects for Silver Inks and Pastes

Suppliers of printed silver have enjoyed a long period of growth due to shifting needs and the development of new applications. In fact, the silver inks and pastes business has been very fortunate in finding a new and big opportunity, each time the old and big opportunity has vanished. Thus silver paste opportunities have shifted over the past half century from membrane switches to PCs to mobile phones and then on to PV.  With the decline of the PV industry, it finally looked as if the silver inks and pastes business was out of luck.  However, as we discussed above, we think that he industry has been saved in this regard.

In any case, we note that, while some traditional markets for silver pastes are genuinely disappearing (e.g., plasma TVs) other traditional markets continue to offer hope for stable or even growing revenues.

Traditional thick film applications: Traditional consumer electronics is a mature market that still uses billions of dollars of silver pastes every year. While it is not growing, it remains a steady source of income that suppliers can rely on while they develop products for newer applications. 

Even without high volume growth, most suppliers of silver inks and pastes cannot afford to ignore the thick film sector. Customers may be looking for lower cost alternatives, but many who are already using silver will continue to do so.  They aren’t seriously considering alternatives.

Displays: The market for silver in plasma display panels (PDPs) is declining rapidly along with the overall decline in the PDP market, but there are still opportunities for the printed inks and pastes in newer display applications:

•    Touch displays have been around for a while, but have become much more widely commercialized over the past few years with the boom in smartphones and tablet computers. Printed silver could be used for the circuitry required for integration of the touch panels with the underlying displays.  

•    Similarly, although printed silver pastes are not particularly prevalent in displays today (although printed silver conductive adhesives are), we think there are opportunities for printed silver to be used in the circuitry of all types of new display formats, in both conventional LCDs and newer OLED displays.

•    Printed silver could be very useful in flexible displays. Truly flexible displays are many years off, if they ever do become commercial products, but suppliers that develop materials that are compatible with flexible circuit boards could take advantage of future developments in flexible displays. 

Lighting: Thick film silver paste has been used in electroluminescent (EL) lamps for many years, and will continue to be so. This is not, however, a growth opportunity. But the commercialization of the OLED lighting market, which seems to be accelerating could poses a real opportunity for printed silver suppliers.

We believe that large OLED lighting panels could employ printed silver as bus bars to prevent visible brightness gradients due to the significant voltage drops and resistive heat losses across long spans of less-conductive transparent electrodes. Printed silver can also serve as interconnects for concatenated OLED lighting panels.  However, OLED lighting panels that are large enough for all this to matter are still a few years out.

Demographic and economic factors: Increased industrialization and urbanization of the developing world creates increased per capita expenditures in a variety of products that use printed silver. Also, silver inks and pastes are used in so many consumer products that increases in the world population as a whole is likely to spur increased demand for silver inks and pastes.

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