New zinc-based technology in LCD and solar cells may significantly decrease cost and ease demand of indium

Analyst Commentary, Miller Chu: Researchers from the University of Oxford have devised a method to lower the manufacturing costs of thin—film solar cells and LCD displays. The researchers plan to develop the manufacturing process which uses a zinc-based conducting oxide coating, compared to the traditional indium-based coating (indium tin oxide – ITO) found in thin-film solar cells and LCD monitors.

The newly discovered zinc-based transparent conductor (silicon-doped zinc oxide) produces similar properties when compared to ITO, including similar transparency and 2/3 of the electrical conductivity, and at a much lower cost due to the relatively more abundant supply of zinc. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the world reserve of indium ranges from 5,700 to 6,000 metric tons compare to an estimated 200 million metric tons zinc reserves. The relative abundant supply of zinc makes it an attractive substitute of indium for thin-film applications.

In addition to the similar properties offered by the zinc-based transparent conductor, the doping process utilizing zinc oxide takes the form of liquid which can be applied to uneven surface without the use of vacuum technology. Typical thin-film technology requires vacuum chambers making the actual application more costly and in some situations impractical, such as using it on the wing of commercial airplanes. The new technology can be applied to commercial aircrafts to supply the on-board electricity demand while the aircraft is in-flight. 

The discovery is moving into test applications and commercial manufacturing development which promises to reduce the manufacturing costs of common merchandise such as LCD displays, solar panels and OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting. Despite its early stages, the discovery can potentially lead to mass deployment of solar panels and significantly decrease the production cost for solar panel manufacturers. As the supply of energy continues to be a major concern around the world, the commercialization of this new technology can also indirectly benefit zinc producers who are positioned to gain from the increase in demand.

References: Flightglobal (Jul 3), Solar Power Portal (Jul 2)

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