New (and old) Applications for Silver Inks

Silver inks, pastes and coatings have been in use for decades in a variety of electronics applications. Silver is valued for its high conductivity, stability, and compatibility with screen printing and other printing methods. Despite its high cost compared to alternative materials, it will continue to be used in applications that need conductive circuitry or electrodes.

The silver inks and pastes industry has always developed in more of an evolutionary than revolutionary manner. Suppliers continue to produce new versions of materials with improved properties or lower cost per gram or, perhaps more importantly, lower cost for a given conductivity. They tailor materials to shifting demands in different applications in order to take advantage of trends and bring new life into their product lines.

Changes Since Our Last Report

That said, suppliers of silver inks, pastes and coatings have to respond quickly to changes in the market place and in the past have shown that they are quite able to do so. In the past few decades, the silver sector has thrived as it has made the subtle changes in its products necessary, first to compete in the home appliance business (for membrane switches), then the personal computer business (PCBs), the cell phone business (micro PCBs) and finally the solar panel business (metallization).

The environment has changed since we last published a report on silver inks and pastes in 2014. Indeed, at times it has sometimes seemed as if the suppliers of silver inks, pastes and coatings have run out of luck. The point is that for decades, the silver sector was fortunate enough to find a new market every time an old one went into decline.

This does not seem to be the case this time as n-tech sees it and as a result we are seeing some of the largest firms in the silver business—Henkel and DuPont are who we have in mind here—searching for new applications and adapting their inks, pastes and coatings to new circumstances and opportunities. We think that these opportunities are best understood by dividing them into three categories—solar, electronics and antimicrobial.

Silver and the New Solar

The crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV market became the single biggest user of conventional silver pastes in 2011, but first the rise of thin-film PV and then the bursting of the PV bubble threatened silver paste sales in the PV market—thin-film PV doesn’t use much silver.

That situation has changed for the better from the perspective of the silver paste suppliers in the past couple of years. For one thing, the PV market has stabilized at margins that are acceptable to the solar panel industry. Also, c-Si has regained dominance, which means silver usage gets a boost. According to one source, c-Si now accounts for 93 percent of solar panel shipments, compared to 80 percent five years ago or so.

We think that this buys some time for silver ink makers dependent on the solar panel industry, but we aren’t going back to the glory days when solar looked like a gold mine for the silver pastes and inks business (bad metaphor intended!). We are looking at a recovery, not another boom. Also, there is a trend towards using less silver in c-Si panels. So we think that while silver ink makers can expect a healthy business from solar, it won’t be what it used to be and they will be under more price pressure than ever. This probably means that the silver ink makers will have to design lower cost silver pastes with less silver, but which still do their jobs adequately.

Are Wearables the Next Big Opportunity for Silver Inks and Pastes?

We expect that electrical and electronic silver inks will continue to find ready markets. Computers and mobile phones are markets where silver is used and which continue to grow, but not by much. But this has to be offset against the virtual disappearance of the plasma TV (PDP) business. When n-tech began coverage of silver inks and pastes, PDP had a very significant share of the silver pastes market but this has now declined to more or less zero.

What we are seeing at the present time is a scramble to find “what’s next” in electronics and which qualifies as at least a moderate consumer of silver. Frankly, this quest has seemed a bit desperate at times. For example, DuPont has introduced nanosilver inks specifically geared toward the OLED lighting market, but OLED lighting remains a niche business at best.

Characteristic requirements for electronic inks in wearables: In fact, it is hard to come up with a market that has the potential that kitchen appliances, personal computers or mobile phones once had. The printed electronics business that was supposed to use a lot of silver ink has fizzled and silver ink makers cannot expect to see much from this “revolution” now. (One caveat here is there is growing interest in 3D printing silver for electronics applications, but this is a very minor factor and likely to stay that way for a number of years.)

n-tech believes that the best hope for silver ink makers in the electronics space right now can probably be found in the wearables space. We say that for several reasons: The wearables market is currently expanding rapidly and it is quite plausible to believe that wearable electronics will become dominant in a number of product categories in the not-too-distant future. These categories could include large ones such as watches and health monitors.

The wearables sector seems open to a significant amount of silver consumption and also of other electronic inks. These are highly flexible and therefore dovetail well with the obvious needs of electronic wearables. In addition, printed circuitry for wearables, enables wearable products to be thin; obviously bulkiness being problematic with anything that has to be worn.

The requirements for silver and other electronic inks in terms of requirements are fairly demanding. These requirements can act as a barrier to entry and therefore promise good margins, something that substantial firms such as DuPont and Henkel will find essential. For example, electronic inks must be able to withstand washing. (According to DuPont, its inks have shown the capability to withstand up to 100 wash cycles and can be easily incorporated into existing manufacturing processes.) There is also the possibility of hard-to-copy innovations such as stretchable inks, which, once again, would be useful in the context of wearables.

Silver as an Antimicrobial Play

Summarizing, we think that the silver inks and pastes business is in reasonably good shape and will continue to get business from all of its traditional markets. But it probably can’t expect a market for silver inks to appear that is experiencing an extreme boom—like solar a decade ago or kitchen appliances in the 1960s. Wearable electronics is the best bet, but it isn’t quite what solar or appliances were in terms of the potential for silver inks and pastes.

One direction that the silver ink industry will also take will be towards specialist inks. This is not an especially novel strategy. What was then Acheson (and is now Henkel) had many specialist carbon/silver and copper/silver inks in its product catalog decades ago. These are still available—at least on a custom basis—but we are also seeing novel inks emerge for specialist printing technologies (inkjet—most electronic inks/pastes are for screen printing) or specialist activities such as prototyping.

We doubt that these very specialist inks are going to be a big business for the electronic ink makers and certainly not enough to make up for the end of boom applications as described above. So we think that silver ink makers will start look well beyond their traditional markets to find what they are after.

Antimicrobials begin: There are probably other possibilities, but n-tech believes that one place that silver ink makers might cast an eye is to antimicrobial coatings for both medical and non-medical surfaces. Silver—especially nano-silver—is an established antimicrobial and antimicrobials are seen as in strong demand at the present time, because of the rise of resistant strains of microbes and hospital acquired infections.

The switch from ink making to coating making is not entirely attractive, because ink making is hard and therefore a barrier to entry, while coating making is easy. However, the chemistries will be familiar territory and firms moving into this sector can take heart from the success of a company like Microban which has had a lot of success with silver-based antimicrobials. In addition, we note that there are possibilities for interesting hybrids that provide some justification for bringing these two formerly separate markets together—wearable products, for example, which could embody both silver-based conductors for embedded electronics and silver-based antimicrobial functionality.

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