When the futuristic films of the past portrayed a cybernetic age of robotics, super computers and artificial intelligence, sceptical and quizzical looks no doubt adorned a great many faces.

Similarly, when it was first vaunted that solar panels would one day be a mainstream source of fuel supply for us all, there were no doubt a number of cynics.

We’ve come a long way. Now we’re living in an almost wireless age of smart devices, tablets, smartphones, downloads and uploads, while PV modules and solar panels are becoming an ever viable source of ‘fuel’ supply as the world stares down the barrel of fossil fuel depletion.

In the electronics sector, business is booming – with little sign of this slowing down just yet. IC Insights, Inc., based in Arizona in the US, is dedicated to providing high quality, cost-effective market research for the semiconductor industry.

According to a 26th May (2011) press release from the company, personal computer (PC) shipments recorded strong growth of 19% in 2010 and are expected to rack-up a 13% increase to 402 million systems worldwide in 2011, thanks to both the rapid spread of PC sales in developing countries and the newfound consumer adoration for tablet-style touch screen computers and systems.

The report notes that the surge in tablets and a 14% increase in the sales of standard notebook computers (to 182 million units in 2011) is expected to drive up total portable PC shipments by 23%, to 250 million systems worldwide this year – following on from 30% growth in 2010. Meanwhile, the report goes onto explain how the shift to mobile personal computers continues to gain strength, with IC Insights now expecting 72% of PC’s sold in 2014 to be portable systems.

Further still, tablets are expected to account for 24% of the projected 557 million units sold that year – up from 5% of the 355 million PC’s sold in 2010.

In IC Insights’ view, a considerable uplift in shipments for tablet computers is expected in the next four years, while the projections lower somewhat for inexpensive netbook computers, which are thought to be in a tailspin after briefly being the hottest new thing in the PC market in 2008 and 2009.

If we look at the PV market from another perspective, with a view to its ‘green’ credentials and prospects as a next generation fuel resource, the outlook appears just as bright.

According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), photovoltaic power is well on the way to contributing an important share of the future energy mix (4th May press release).

Citing its Global Market Outlook for Photovoltaics until 2015 report, the EPIA claims the PV market has experienced unrivalled growth among all energy generating technologies over the past decade, with unprecedented growth seen in 2010 in particular. Capacity additions grew from 7.2 gigawatts (GW) installed in 2009 to 16.6 GW in 2010, ensuring solar PV power was the leading renewable energy technology in terms of new capacity growth in Europe last year, with the major increase linked to the strong uptake in the German and Italian markets.

With 7.4 GW installed in just one year, Germany leads the way in the PV market worldwide, while Italy is starting to exploit its ‘huge’ potential of solar resources. The US and Japan meanwhile, installed up to 900 and 990 megawatts (MW) last year, respectively.

The PV markets are stronger than they have ever been, the EPIA says. Further still, it is expected that PV reaches, progressively, competitiveness all over Europe by 2020. Ingmar Wilhelm, President of the EPIA, said in a statement, “The evolution of the PV market in recent years has been heavily linked to the confidence and vision of smart policy makers in supporting the development of the technology.”

“Adequate support policies that have been driving the markets so far, such as the Feed-in Tariffs, must continue and be ever brought in tune with the declining cost curve of PV.”

The optimism and future of the electronics market is established. But what does all this mean for the gases business and electronics fabrication? The rise in tablets and other such electronic devices that are so popular right now could have a two-fold effect.

PV and solar cells has been experiencing rapid growth, but this proliferation could also come at a cost. On the one hand, a declining cost curve due to the competitive market is clearly a good thing for the consumer, as it gradually brings the cost of end product down to a level that is attainable to the masses.

On the other hand however, from a business or manufacturing perspective, is it such a great thing for the supply-demand equation and those manufacturers that are selling at loss to survive in a competitive market? Is there a risk of some manufacturers spiralling out of business as costs continue to plunge and therefore squeeze the margins?

From another point of view, what do the trends above mean for the industry gases industry? It seems that this rapid propagation can only be good news for the gases business – gasworld understands that silane demand alone could rise up to 14% in 2011 and potentially by further double-digit levels in 2012.

REC Silicon is a leading global player in the production of high purity silicon materials, with 25 years of polysilicon manufacturing expertise and currently producing silicon materials at two US-based plants. With a silane production capacity approaching 27,000 metric tonnes per year, REC has accumulated valuable experience in the handling, storage and shipping of bulk silane.

Speaking from the sidelines of the recent SEMICON West 2011 and InterSolar shows in San Francisco, REC’s Fred Woods, Head of Global Marketing, told gasworld magazine, “We expect overall silane demand to grow (year-on-year) 7-14% in 2011 and 8-14% in 2012.”

“The semiconductor market, which until recently was being eclipsed by TFT-LCD, has always been the largest consumer of silane. Silane consumption is based on semiconductor wafer area production, which is expected to grow 7-12% in 2011 and 2012.”

REC is speaking from an informed position; the company is the only commercial producer that has independent manufacturing sites with multiple storage and loading facilities, offering its customers ‘an unequalled reliability of supply’.

Products from the company’s Washington State and Montana facilities are sold worldwide to customers who manufacture LCD televisions, semiconductors and thin-film solar cells and Woods explained, “Semi growth is being driven by the explosive growth in tablet computers and smartphones…and the increased memory use in those devices.”

“Additionally, data centre growth (cloud computing) and the siliconisation of the automobile are also driving silane demand in the semiconductor space.”

“Since 2010,” Woods adds, “TFT-LCD has been the largest consumer of silane. TFT-LCD capacity is at an all time high; with considerable expansion and new construction underway. TFT-LCD area growth is expected to be between 10-15% through 2012.”

The increased LCD demand, we understand, comes (in part) from emerging markets like China and Brazil, and CRT replacement demand in advanced markets. Woods confirms that the additional drivers are, of course, the aforementioned rise of public displays, tablet computers, smartphones and other consumer electronics.

In closing, he described the expectations for silane usage in the PV market alone, “PV silane demand is primarily driven by amorphous thin-film which has failed to reach the production levels previously anticipated. Silane demand is expected to grow 3-8% in 2011 and approximately 4-9% in 2012.”

In addition to this overall double-digit demand for silane, The Linde Group has of course been quite effusive about the growing uptake for its on-site fluorine in recent months. The company has seen widespread activity for its on-site fluorine generator installations at semiconductor manufacturing sites, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, and a growing uptake of fluorine as an alternative to nitrogen trifluoride in TFT-LCD and PV manufacturing operations.

Further still, gasworld has learned from another of the gas industry’s major players that a different gas, as an alternative dopant, could be in vogue in the years to come. Also speaking from San Francisco, on the sidelines of the SEMICON West show, Air Liquide Electronics relayed its excitement at the prospects for ultra pure boron tribromide (BBr3).

Chris Ryan, Vice-President of Sales & Marketing at Air Liquide Electronics in the US, explained, “BBr3 has, in the past, had a few applications in the semiconductor space as a sort of novel dopant material, but at Air Liquide we’ve developed a method to synthesise what we call ultra-pure BBr3 and we’re looking to deliver this to the market as an alternative boron dopant.”

“Ultra-pure BBr3 can be a comparable or perhaps more advantageous dopant, by virtue of the fact that with all of the impurities from the BBr3 removed, it eliminates a lot of the potential variability in terms of manufacturing. BBr3 is not in widespread adaptation by the industry, but we think it can be. So we’re letting the marketplace know that this product exists, that it’s available right now, and that it could have potential technical advantages.”

Conveying the company’s positivity about the prospects for BBr3, Ryan added, “BBr3 synthesis on its own is not necessarily easy and moreover, the analysis to prove that it’s an alternative product is not easy either. But this product is now available to the marketplace, and we’re looking for companies to try the adaptation to this particular product – it’s something we’re pretty excited about.”

Exciting future
The expectations for the PV and electronics market appear bright, from both a solar and devices point of view.

On the solar front, it’s thought that a declining cost curve of PV is attracting a lot of attention – and discussion – among those in the PV manufacturing industry.

In terms of the future for the solar PV market, a study published in February (2011) by the EPIA and Greenpeace International projected that global investments in this technology could double from €35-40bn [today] to over €70bn in 2015. The estimated investments in the EU alone would rise from €25-30bn to over €35bn in 2015, the study claims.

And from an electronics devices perspective, the outlook is just as encouraging. Asked whether Air Liquide was excited about the rise of so-called tablets and smartphones, Ryan responded, “Absolutely. Tablet growth, associated microprocessor growth, memory growth, is fantastic for the industry. Cell phones also bring a number of analogue devices and power management chips, which energise the entire industry. You’ve got a number of players large and small that grow with the smartphone industry and the rise of the tablet, and that’s good for businesses across the board.”

“PC’s (personal computers) are exciting, their memories and microprocessors, but cell phones, because of the radio chips and power management chips, have a tendency to engage more players in the marketplace and we’re excited about that. That growth in that market segment is definitely great for the industry.”