The expected demand for argon used in silicon wafer single crystals is thought to have expanded explosively, according to recently estimated figures, and this could cause argon to become chronically short in supply in the future.
Demand in 2006 should amount to approximately 50 million m3, a strong increase of 12 million m3 in just one year and indicative of the rapid growth in this market. If this trend continues it is anticipated that demand for 2007 will be close to 60 million m3 and under these circumstances there is concern that a stable supply will become extremely hard to achieve.
At present, the Japanese firms Shin-Etsu Handotai and Sumco account for over 75 percent of the global production of 300mm wafers and have experienced a sharp growth increase of over 30 percent since latter 2004. The 300mm wafer these produce has become the standard material for the state of the art semi-conductor plants and Shin-Etsu Handotai has announced an expansion of monthly production from 700,000 to 1 million units in the autumn of this year. Sumco will also be expanding its monthly production from 700,000 to 760,000 in August next year.
The demand for argon is also continuing to expand in the non-silicon areas such as welding, AOD steels, metals and speciality steels, which, coupled with the demand for wafers, is likely to lead to a seriously short supply capacity.
Amidst all of this, gas producers are expanding their supply capacity and some companies are considering importing from Taiwan, with the major steel producer China Steel as the source. The company has already exported liquid argon to Southeast Asia but this would only be a temporary measure and is comparatively expensive.