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The photovoltaic sector is a large target market for conductive paste. It however underwent a period of distress characterised by tumbling prices, bankruptcies and consolidation. This was triggered by the rapid expansion of production capacity in China and the simultaneous reduction of subsidies in Europe. In the same period however, other markets such as the touch screen and the automotive (with conductive inks/paste) sectors experienced continued growth while many others remained at a nascent or emerging state. In the background to all this, the financial crisis impacted the price of raw silver (the dominant technology), causing it to increase by 4.5 times between 2009 and 2012. These trends had huge implications for the market, strongly affecting the demand and changing its composition, while generating a global wave of interest in alternatives.
IDTechEx fully characterises the market dynamics for each application. It finds that the photovoltaic sector will recover, registering growth. However, various plating technologies will steal market share away from silver flake paste, adversely affecting demand. Inkjet printable inks will also slowly penetrate this sector as silicon wafers thin requiring non-contact printing. The underlying incentive for uptake will however remain weak here given the low spot prices of silicon ingots, limiting growth. The touch market will continue its growth, particularly because touch capability will penetrate the notebook and monitor markets too. This will represent a growing addressable target market segment, although sputtering will continue to present stiff competition to printed bezels or edge electrodes. The metal mesh transparent conductive film technology (fine metallic grid) will also take market share away from ITO, particularly in large-area devices where a low sheet resistance really matters. This translates into demand for silver nanoparticles as fine lines (<5um) are required.
The automotive market will grow in prominence too, particularly as the interior products such as seat heaters, overhead consoles, etc adopt printed conductive pastes and inks. Here, the market will value long term reliability therefore price will be less of a differentiator in commoditised paste markets. The sensor market, particularly glucose sensors, will also grow fast, although there is large market uncertainly thanks to cost pressures applied by the US government and also due to a changing regularity framework. Printed logic and memory will remain at a nascent or R&D stage, contributing little to overall market figures, while smart packaging and RFID antennas will grow in units, but consumption per item will remain intrinsically small.
Silver flake paste is mature and thus unlikely to show further performance improvement or cost reduction. At the same time, silver nanoparticles will improve, particularly as large corporations with capacity and leverage enter the scene. The trend towards alternatives such as copper and silver alloys will also continue, particularly in Japan where many companies offer different migration-free and relatively stable copper pastes and curing techniques. This is despite the fact that the switching motive is now weakened thanks to reducing raw silver prices. Graphene, PEDOT and carbon nanotubes will all find niche applications. For example, graphene is already in the RFID and smart packaging sectors thank to its low cost, fast printing and low curing temperature. Sintering techniques will also change and/or improve with photo-sintering registering particular success as it increases processing speeds and brings compatibility with low-temperature substrates.