The indium market's focus might be tuned to liquid
crystal displays (LCDs) currently, but analysts see the solar
industry as a major bright spot in driving future recycling
An anticipated growth in demand for solar
semiconductors made from copper, indium, gallium, (di)selenide
(CIGS) material is expected to drive increasing use of indium,
leading to an increased focus on improving indium recycling
methods for solar semiconductors.
The market is divided primarily into two segments
silicon wafers and thin-film transistors (TFTs).
Silicon-wafer-based solar semiconductors represent more than 90
percent of the market, understandable given their ability to
more efficiently harvest light with a 20-percent photon
Indium is used primarily in CIGS in the solar
industry, with TFTs accounting for only a sliver of the market.
With a conversion efficiency rate of 10 percent, CIGS has a
significant amount of ground to make up before it can be viewed
as competitive. However, advocates argue that CIGS can be as
efficient as silicon, having achieved more than 15 percent
efficiency in laboratory tests. With further improvements,
analysts believe CIGS could emerge as a strong competitor to
silicon and drive demand for indium.
As primary sources of indium continue to be at the
mercy of the weak zinc market, the steady stream of supply
offered by recycled indium has kept prices from spiraling out
"As far as where does indium come from in five
years, I can only tell you that the recycling capacity of
indium must increase," said Douglas Hunter, a trader at
London-based physical trader Wogen Plc. Indium prices could
soar if recycling remains at current levels while the expected
growth in the CIGS industry starts to compete more heavily with
the LCD industry.
Hunter estimates CIGS industry demand for indium
will reach between 110 and 120 tons annually by 2011, more than
five times the 21 tons of consumption in 2007 reported by
Cranston, R.I.-based alloyer AIM Specialty Materials USA.
Still, these figures pale compared with AIM's forecast of 2,193
tons of indium-tin oxide consumption in 2009. Indium-tin oxide
is a compound used in TFT LCDs.
SolarVision Consulting, a Silicon Valley,
Calif.-based company, said that a single CIGS solar panel would
need approximately 4 grams of indium vs. only a few fractions
of a gram used in LCD panels. Naturally, there's also a cost
component to recycling vs. disposal, but "at least now it makes
some financial sense," SolarVision founder Andy Skumanich said.
The company estimates the cost for in-house recycling of
elements in CIGS TFTs at about 5 cents per watt compared with
$3 per watt to make a solar panel.
The development of CIGS recycling has taken place
largely in Europe, where it is moderately advanced, Skumanich
said. The European Electronic Recyclers Association in the
Netherlands already has targets for recycling materials such as
TFTs. Market observers agree that the U.S. is missing an
important market opportunity by not building up infrastructure
for CIGS recycling.
Recapture Metals Ltd., a gallium refiner based in
Peterborough, Ontario, is an exception, having developed a CIGS
recycling process that can separate indium from gallium, a
challenge that few companies have mastered.
"I would say that people who are recycling indium
at the moment can look forward to a relatively stable business
in the next couple of years at least," Hunter said.
Some analysts disagree, though, saying CIGS won't
be a viable competitor in the solar industry. Jack Lifton, a
Detroit-based strategic metals consultant, strongly believes
that CIGS won't succeed because the key minor metals
used-indium, gallium and selenium-are all byproducts of other
base metals and thus subject to fluctuations in these
While the CIGS market has yet to prove itself as a
significant commercial threat to silicon-based wafers, analysts
generally agree that if the technology can be successfully
transferred from lab to fabrication, indium demand will rise,
which bodes well for the recycling segment of the industry.
Overall, CIGS recycling and end-of-life solar panel
recycling remain in their infancy in terms of scrap generation,
but should CIGS take off then recycling's role could become a