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Silver: 3 New Tech Uses to Grow 275% by 2018

Silver use set to jump in flexible touch screens, LED chips and semi-conductor stacking...
 
SILVER USE in three fast-growing technologies could grow 275% over the next four years, according to new research.
 
Produced for the Washington-based Silver Institute of international miners, refiners, wholesalers and manufacturers, the 22-page report notes that these newer uses of silver "might at first glance seem modest" compared to industry's total 15,000-tonne demand for silver per year.
 
But looking at flexible screens, LEDs and interposers for stacking semi-conductor chips in electronics, London-based consultancy Metals Focus sees these 3 technologies together growing their annual silver use from 125 tonnes to 450 tonnes and more by 2018.
 
"Although not 'new' technologies" in themselves, says Metals Focus, their application of silver "is yet to reach widespread commercial use." Indeed, it was the 4.5-fold surge in silver prices from 2009 to 2012 – caused by the financial crisis – which led mobile devices such as cell phones and e-readers to use other conductive ink materials, says a separate report from forecasting consultancy IDTechEx, focusing instead on using indium-tin oxide (ITO).
 
With flexible displays now gaining market-share however, "ITO faces some critical drawbacks," notes Metals Focus' silver technology report, because it is a "brittle, fragile material". Using silver nano-wires instead can make the screen as flexible as the material supporting it, while in terms of visual performance, "95% transparency has already been achieved by some industry players."
 
Putting the ink/paste component of the conductive screen industry's costs at $1.6 billion for 2014, IDTechEx sees the market growing 4.5% per year over the next decade. Touch screens employing silver in the conductive ink currently use some 18-20 grams per square meter on one estimate. Indium itself is primarily mined in China, whereas silver is mined worldwide.  
 
Forecasting company IHS believes sales of non-ITO touch screens could grow 300% in 2014 alone. According to David Jollie, precious metals analyst at Japanese trading house and London market-maker Mitsui, "Growth in tablets, smart phones and particularly touch screen monitors means silver demand could double here over the next decade, more than offsetting any weakness in silver demand from the photovoltaic [solar panel] sector."
 
Global demand for LED chips (light-emitting diodes) is meantime set to reach 61 billion units this year, according to NPD Display Search, more than 250% above the level of only two years ago. Falling demand for LED chips in televisions and other smaller devices is being more than offset by outdoor use and general lighting. Pressured to boost energy efficiency further, the industry is increasingly using silver both to reflect light out of the module, and also in the bonding wire and adhesive layer needed to construct it.
 
Metals Focus' third new silver technology, interposers, enable electronics manufacturers to "stack" micro-chips, saving space and boosting functionality. Connecting the different chips together, "Traditionally interposers have been made of silicon," says their report for the Silver Institute, but new demands means that material "is fast approaching its limit in terms of performance" and cost efficiency.
 
Using silver is very early-stage yet, Metals Focus stress, and the metal does face competition from other solutions, notably copper. Starting however from a current annual estimate of only 15 tonnes, commercial roll-out "could in principal" see 10-20 times as much silver being used for interposer technology by 2018, "underpinned by strong end-use demand."

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