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Volume 88 Issue 2 | p. 14
Issue Date: January 11, 2010

Cover Stories: World Chemical Outlook

Electronics: New Products Will Put Industry Back On Track

Department: Business | Collection: Economy
Keywords: Chemical Outlook, electronics, solar, semiconductor

The economic downturn that began in late 2008 savaged the global electronic materials industry. But optimism is returning. Demand has been unexpectedly strong over the past six months as electronic device developers launch new products and China stimulates consumer demand. Meanwhile, the solar energy market continues to expand.

Demand for electronics is driven by a fundamental trend that can be called “consumerism,” says Sam Shoemaker, commercial leader for semiconductor technologies at Dow Chemical. Around the world, “people want mobile phones, personal digital assistants, and other small portable devices,” he says. Another underlying trend is demand for alternative power sources like solar.

In 2010, Shoemaker predicts, demand for semiconductor materials will be stimulated by strong sales of personal computers, mini laptops called netbooks, and smart phones. Interaction among electronic appliances, he points out, will rise.

To operate quickly, today's devices require semiconductors that integrate multiple system components in ways that were impossible until recently, says Corning Painter, general manager of global electronics at Air Products & Chemicals. “Devices now feature silicon chips that look the same as before and are still loaded with transistors, but our industry is developing technology to combine built-in capacitors, antennas, and so on, integrating more components of the system into one package.”

The breakthrough is great news for the electronic materials industry, Painter says. In fact, the downturn brought an unexpected side benefit, he adds. With production lines idle, semiconductor makers were receptive to trying out new materials. “While 2009 was a disaster economically, it was a good year for introducing materials that you had ready on the shelf, that were just at the cusp of being introduced,” he says.

Near term, Painter is less bullish on the solar energy market, another big outlet for electronic materials. Solar project promoters are finding it hard to secure financing, he says, and thus the pace at which new solar cell manufacturing facilities are being built has slowed. In addition, buyers of solar energy components are more focused on costs than on innovation.

Nancy Chiarotto, global marketing director for Dow’s photovoltaic business, is fine with that. “We’re completely focused on decreasing cost per watt,” she says. Unlike Painter, she doesn’t see the industry’s focus on cost as a limitation. Dow provides materials that didn’t exist before, Chiarotto points out. One, for example, is a cleaner that removes debris from silicon wafers so solar cells can better absorb the sun’s rays.

The photovoltaic market will grow 35% annually over the next five years, Chiarotto predicts: 45% for thin-film solar cells and 30% for cells made from polysilicon. “Dow is very interested in participating in this market,” she says.

 
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