Recycling has been a dominant force in the liquid
crystal display (LCD) industry for years. As the largest
consumer of indium, the majority of the metal for LCD
consumption is derived via recycling rather than virgin
But signs are pointing to a supply crunch on the
horizon-in part due to expectations of increasing demand for
indium from the solar market-as current recycling techniques
approach their limits, driving research into new, alternative
Around 1,318 tons of indium are expected to be
derived from recycling this year alone vs. only 450 tons of
virgin supply, according to Cranston, R.I.-based alloyer AIM
Specialty Materials USA. Recycling is necessary to ensure the
constant flow of the versatile metal and to help stabilize
As a zinc byproduct, indium can be subject to
shortfalls if zinc mines, particularly in China, are closed.
One large indium producer has identified a nearly 100-ton
reduction in indium supply, much of it attributable to the
closure of unprofitable indium processing plants, although
there has been no impact on prices, given weaker demand for
end-consumer products. In general, very few refineries focus
solely on indium and "no one puts a hole in the ground to get
indium," said Brian O'Neill, sales manager at AIM
The industry responded to rising indium prices a
few years ago by expanding its scrap recycling capabilities to
meet increasing demand. As a crucial step in the LCD
manufacturing process, recycling of indium tin oxide (ITO)
waste from the sputtering process has received the majority of
attention. Most recycling from the sputtering process is done
in Asia, where the major ITO manufacturers are based.
However, this vital engine of indium generation is
inevitably approaching a point of maturity, currently estimated
to be operating at more than 90-percent efficiency, according
to one indium producer.
No one is sure whether major indium-consuming
countries like Japan have significantly run down their large
scrap stocks. Historically, there had been no incentive to
develop recycling facilities, as it had been cheaper to buy raw
indium. "It just didn't pay to recycle," O'Neill said. "They
didn't throw it away; they stockpiled it." These large scrap
stockpiles were built up prior to the last indium price spike
to $1,200 per kilogram in 2005 from $60 previously, according
to AIM Specialty.
Since then, ITO makers have started to recycle
their stockpiles, making it the largest component of indium
supply. "The million-dollar question is, when does the
stockpile get whittled down? That's what no one knows," O'Neill
Alex Iasnikov, business development manager at
Peterborough, Ontario-based recycler Recapture Metals Ltd.,
said he thinks Japan's recycling capacity is now in balance
with demand and the stockpiles are no longer substantial. "I
don't know if the stockpile is real or not," he said.
As current recycling methods reach their limits
along with the possibility that indium stockpiles have been
depleted, the search for alternative indium recycling routes
has taken various directions.
One alternative is to retrieve indium by recycling
end-of-life products like solar-cell panels and LCDs
themselves. However, "logistical, technical and economic
challenges still need to be overcome," said Christian
Hagelüken, senior manager of business development and
marketing at Umicore Precious Metals Refining.
Umicore is already recovering indium from smelter
byproducts, as well as small LCD electronic devices, primarily
cell phones, at its Hoboken refinery near Antwerp, Belgium.
However, the cell phone collection rate has been very low, with
the majority ending up in sub-standard treatment processes,
Hagelüken said. Furthermore, the economics of recycling
small LCD electronic devices are currently driven by the gold
and palladium content rather than indium.
Similar problems plague the recycling of larger LCD
flat panels. "I think it makes sense to recycle flat panels
only if you do full-scale recycling and try to get more
material than just indium," Iasnikov said. Indium currently
makes up less than 2 percent of the overall LCD material cost,
and the price would have to rise significantly before a
profound impact would be felt by LCD manufacturers.
Indium prices are expected to rise to $800 to
$1,000 per kg. by the end of 2009 as indium production falls
and ITO producers run down accumulated stocks, around three
times the free-market price listed by AMM earlier this
While the impact of the recession likely will
reduce demand for sales of key LCD products in the near term,
producers agree that the softness will be short-lived as LCDs
play a vital role in many popular electronics devices,
including touch-screen handheld devices like the Apple iPhone.
Still, indium prices aren't expected to reach anywhere near the
level necessary to make end-of-life LCD recycling a near-term
In the solar semiconductor space, Recapture Metals
is one of the few known recyclers to have figured out how to
extract indium from residual copper, indium, gallium,
(di)selenide (CIGS) material used for solar cell manufacturing.
Although CIGS solar cells contain only 1.5 microns of these
metals, CIGS can account for 30 to 40 percent of the material
cost and indium 40 to 45 percent of the cost.
However, CIGS solar semiconductors face fierce
competition from the silicon wafers that currently dominate the
market and if indium prices rise, solar cell manufacturers
might simply shift production to focus on silicon wafers, which
don't use indium.
Recapture Metals is capable of processing about 25
tons of CIGS annually. It estimates that industrywide between 2
and 5 tons of indium is being generated annually through CIGS
recycling, most of it from its plants. Recycled CIGS is
currently limited by the small number of commercial CIGS solar
panel operations and the minimal level of CIGS scrap
If the solar CIGS industry continues to grow, the
amount of recycled indium derived from this source could rise
to 20 to 40 tons annually in coming years, Iasnikov said,
depending on how quickly the economy recovers and the
technology improves. At the moment, though, investors are
holding back on financing additional capacity as previous
growth estimates for the CIGS industry failed to
Recapture Metals estimates it would take about $1
million to $2 million for an existing recycler to beef up CIGS
recycling capacity and $3 million to $5 million to build
operations from scratch.
Another possible method of indium recycling
involves separating the material from zinc leach residue. Such
residue is left unprocessed because it's not economical to
treat at current prices. For zinc producers, installing such a
system could cost up to $50 million to comply with strict
environmental regulations, so indium prices would need to be
sustained at much higher levels to justify the investment.