Transparent Conductors and the Rise of the Nanomaterials
Published: October 19, 2011 Category: Advanced Materials

When NanoMarkets first started providing analysis of the transparent conductor (TC) industry, some six years or so ago, the industry was easy to characterize.  ITO ruled the roost, except where the market was looking for especially low-cost solutions; in antistatic applications.   True, executives in the display industry – and even in the transparent conductor industry itself – knew all the unkind things to say about ITO.  It cracked, it cost a lot, even that it had a yellowish tinge, etc., etc.

When one examined at the alternatives, ITO began to look pretty good.  None of them could compete with ITO on the crucial transparency and conductivity parameters.  In any case, most of the alternatives to ITO were not ready for prime time; at best they were in that limbo phase called sampling.  The threat to ITO from its rivals was negligible.

The one exception to this rule was in the thin-film PV (TFPV) application, where alternative transparent conducting oxides (TCOs) quickly made their mark.  First Solar the dominant supplier has adopted FTO as its transparent conductor, while most of the firms in the CIGS space use AZO.  In the a-Si PV sector, FTO and AZO are also used.  As an aside, there is an important takeaway from all this.  Applications that are relatively new – such as TFPV – are more likely to adopt new TCs.  By contrast consider the conventional – and highly established -- LCD industry, which continues to demonstrate considerable reluctance to ITO alternatives.

While the use of TCOs other than ITO in the TFPV industry is proof positive that, ITO doesn’t always get to win; it hardly represented a paradigm shift.  It was, after all, a just a switch from one TCO to another.  In the past year to two years, we have seen something genuinely new in the TC space; the rise of the nanomaterials.

Nano-TCs:  More Firms, More Materials, More Applications

By rise, we have in mind three things.  First, while there have been firms around developing nanomaterial approaches to rival ITO, there are now a lot more such firms and they appear to have been quite successful in attracting capital.  Second, there is now considerable diversity in the nanomaterials being offered in this sector.  A few years back nanomaterial challenges to ITO consisted entirely of carbon nanotube inks.  Take a look at this space now and you will also see silver nanostructures in solution, silver grids, copper-based solutions and graphene.  As NanoMarkets discusses in its upcoming report, we would not be surprised to see nanostructured polymers also enter this fray.

The third aspect of the rise of the nanomaterials materials that needs to be considered is that some of these materials might now reasonably be considers to be commercialized.  True, some of these materials remain well within the lab, but some are out there is products that you can buy now.  One of the important messages that have come out of the interview program that NanoMarkets has just completed with manufacturers of TCs is that several nanomaterials are now commercialized.  They are being used in a very small number of products and often in limited quantities.  But in the past year they have crossed an important barrier.

Marketing, Messaging and Conductive Nanomaterials

What all this means is that firms that have in the past focused on developing  materials that can be sold into the TC space must now change track and focus on marketing.  Until now such firms have largely been able to get away with vague statements about targeting the touch screen market, or “flexible displays,” or something of this sort.  But this won’t get them very far in terms of actually generating new business revenues.

One part of the marketing strategy for “nano-TCs” will certainly be to match the material’s capability to the opportunities.  A material that will make a superb antistatic coating for the outside of a touch panel may be completely unsuitable for the transparent conductive material in the touch sensor itself.  In a few cases, nanomaterials may actually facilitate new applications.  The example that is usually mentioned in this context is that of flexible displays; but flexible displays have challenges other than the TC one.  Where we are seeing nano-TCs going where ITO fears to tread is in the large panel sector, where ITO isn’t sufficient to bring the electricity to the outer limits of the panel.  Such panels exist in the PV sector and it is easy to imagine similar problems appearing in large displays or in the OLED lighting sector.

Above all, the nano-ITO firms are going to have to message effectively and this is something that they have never done especially well.  For example, we often hear about how ITO suffers from a yellow tinge.  But how much does this really matter in the marketplace, especially when your nano-TC has a blue tinge or a grey tinge!  One factor that does matter of course is cost and if you can show that your nano-ITO is lower cost than ITO you are in good shape.  But what does that really mean?  Are the old stories about the impact on the price on indium on the price of ITO just old wives’ tales?  Some people think they are.  But NanoMarkets analysis suggests that we just don’t know!

Messaging and marketing are going to be major challenges for firms offering new solutions (both literally and figuratively) in the TC marketplace.