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Volume 86 Issue 28 | p. 10
Issue Date: July 14, 2008

Cover Stories

Electronic Chemicals

New materials from chemical companies are helping the electronics industry advance solar power, semiconductors, and lighting
Department: Business
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Tough Partner
Electronics industry players such as IBM expect a lot from their partners in the chemicals business.
Credit: IBM
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Tough Partner
Electronics industry players such as IBM expect a lot from their partners in the chemicals business.
Credit: IBM

ADVANCED ELECTRONICS are helping the world navigate an energy-starved future. Improved solar panels are cranking out more fossil-fuel-free electricity. New computer chips with 45-nm circuitry are smaller and more energy efficient than ever before. And lighting devices based on organic light-emitting diodes promise to brighten rooms with less electricity than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.

Behind these electronics breakthroughs are unsung materials provided by specialty chemical makers. But these companies aren't clamoring for more recognition. They're happy just to be reaping the profits available to successful providers of electronic materials.

Electronics sales at Rohm and Haas, a leading electronic materials supplier, increased 9% in 2007 to $1.7 billion. Profits rose a robust 16%, and the firm's chief executive officer, Raj Gupta, predicts "the continuation of strong growth" in the business during 2008. Likewise, DuPont expects to more than triple its sales of materials for the solar energy industry to $1 billion over the next five years.

But steep investment is required to play the electronics game. To meet the needs of the solar industry, companies such as Dow Corning and Wacker Chemie are spending billions of dollars to build new polysilicon plants, despite lackluster returns from earlier investments in the highly pure material.

Keeping up with electronics customers also means heavy spending in R&D. Last month, for example, Rohm and Haas completed installation of a cluster of computer-chip lithography tools that cost $60 million just to buy and set up.

And the R&D investments don't always pay off. Dow Chemical spent millions of dollars to develop SiLK, a polymeric dielectric material that is applied as a liquid, unlike conventional dielectrics, which usually are applied by chemical vapor deposition. Although technically impressive, SiLK has so far failed to catch on except for some niche applications.

Still, chemical makers keep at it. Claus Poppe, director of BASF's electronic materials business unit, acknowledges that competition in the semiconductor industry is fierce, and prices are volatile. "But there's huge growth in terms of materials demand," he says. "This industry is moving toward more sophisticated chemistry, and it needs more and more innovative new chemicals. That is the reason BASF is in it."

 
Chemical & Engineering News
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