Indium At Your Fingertips; The Go-To Minor Metal For Flat-Panel Displays

June 10, 2013

Despite the reports of shortages over the past several years, there are still tons of the metal around.

 

Multitasking again? Watching your new, huge, flat-screen monitor; reading this piece on your tablet; and, calling in a pizza on your smartphone? The chances are that each screen you’re looking at, and tapping on, will contain some indium—albeit in tiny quantities. That’s because indium (when alloyed with tin) is the “go to” metal for LCD and touch screens.

In fact, according to the latest figures from the likes of Indium Corp. and AIM Specialty Materials, demand for the metal in flat panel displays (FPDs) alone ranges from around 52 percent (AIM) to 56 percent (Indium Corp.) of total net demand for the metal.

 

Forecast Net Demand for Indium: 2013


Source: Indium Corporation

 

Indium’s uses other than in FPDs include:

  • Solders: Indium is an important element in lead-free solders. In addition to improving the solders’ resistance to thermal fatigue and lowering their tendency to crack, indium has replaced the lead once found in many solders that have been banned in many countries.
  • PVs: In photovoltaics (PVs), indium is used, together with copper, gallium and selenium in the manufacture of CIGS (and, without the gallium, CIS) thin film solar cells.
  • Thermal Interface Materials: Not least because of its excellent thermal conductivity, indium acts as an effective and efficient interface between electronic components and the heat sinks employed to cool them down.
  • Batteries: In certain types of batteries—e.g., alkali and zinc air—indium compounds are used to improve performance and efficiency.
  • Alloys/Compounds: Because of its low melting point, alloys containing indium can be used to hold high-value items while they are being worked on; e.g., glass lenses while they are being ground, or turbine blades. The alloy can then be melted away at a low temperature with no resulting damage to the item it held. And in nuclear reactors, there are four general methods of controlling either the power or the flux of neutrons. Indium is an excellent neutron absorber. Alloyed with silver and cadmium (silver: 80 percent, indium: 15 percent and cadmium: 5 percent), the resulting material is enclosed in stainless steel tubes and serves as an effective poison, particularly in pressurized water reactors.
  • Compound Semiconductors & LEDs: Indium is used in tiny quantities in both LEDs (usually those producing light in the longer wavelengths of the visible spectrum) and in compound semiconductors (where its main use is in optoelectronics—both in photodetectors and transmission lasers).

 

 

 

It is, however, in FPDs—whether liquid crystal displays (LCDs), plasma display panels (PDPs) or screens employing OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes)—that indium finds its primary application.

Indium-tin oxide (ITO)—by weight 90 percent In2O3, 10 percent SnO2—when deposited (by evaporation, vapor deposition or by using a sputtering target) as a thin film on either clear glass or plastic becomes, typically, a transparent electrical conductor.

As such, ITO thin films are found in the LCDs used in, among other places, TVs, cellphones, tablets and computers. They are also still used to make the touch screen cathode ray tubes (CRTs) found, e.g., in some banks’ ATMs, although these are slowly being phased out. And since ITO is good for both de-icing and de-misting, thin films of it are also applied both to car and aircraft windshields.

In addition to having both the highest optical transparency and lowest electrical resistance, ITO thin films are:

  • Recyclable
  • Stable and long-lived
  • Accurately and quickly etched
  • When applied by physical vapor deposition (PVD), uniform over wide areas—especially important on such appliances as large-screen TVs

 

No Indium Shortage

Whatever you might read (or hear) to the contrary, there is plenty of indium around. In fact, in relative terms, it is three times more abundant than its look-alike silver. So when you see pieces like touch-and-go tablet and computer screens published, e.g., by the BBC on March 8, 2012, treat them with the skepticism they deserve. When we first looked at the metal back in December 2009, a study undertaken by Indium Corp. (its first such) indicated that Western world indium reserves (“proven and probable, measured and indicated, and inferred”) in “identified base metal mines” were some 26,000 tons, with combined reserves in China and the former Soviet Union amounting to some 23,000 tons.

Their latest such study, undertaken in 2012, “concluded that there were approximately 30,000 tonnes of indium reserves contained in zinc mines in the west.” This is some 15 percent more than first estimated for the West alone. (The figure for China, Russia and the former CIS remains unchanged.) And this does not even address the fact that indium is also to be found in copper, iron, lead, silver and tin ores.

A figure for global indium reserves of only some 6,000 tonnes should, therefore, be treated with some caution, even disbelief.

Using feedstock either produced domestically or imported from abroad, China is the world’s largest refiner of “primary” indium, closely followed (according to figures from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)) by Canada, Japan and Korea.

 

Estimated Global Refinery Production 2008-2012 (Tonnes)

e=Estimated

Source: USGS

 

 

On the basis of an article in Metal Bulletin on March 29 of this year, titled “Korea Zinc plans 140-150 tonnes of indium output in 2013,” the figure for last year’s production in Korea may even be a trifle low.

A significant source of indium supply is recycled ITO sputtering targets. Using sputtering to deposit ITO on panels remains amazingly wasteful of the sputtering target itself. In the process of sputtering, less than 30 percent of the ITO actually ends up stuck to the panel. The remaining 70 percent ends up on the walls of the sputtering chamber, in the grinding sludge and in the “used” target itself. While indium therein can now be recovered (amounting to 60-65 percent of the original ITO target) the remainder still goes to waste. As recovery methods improve, more indium will also become available through recycling.

Recycling takes place mainly in China, Japan and Korea. Both Indium Corp. and AIM say that about 900 tons per year are recovered from global recycling capacity.

As with many minor metals, figures for production (primary and secondary), demand (in indium’s instance in ITO and other applications), will often differ depending upon whom you ask. And sorting out consumption from primary and/or secondary consumption is sometimes very difficult.

In the case of indium, however, whoever may be providing the figures all recognize that supply quite obviously exceeds demand—and by some estimates, significantly so. Recent figures from both AIM and Indium Corp. illustrate this very clearly.

Indium Supply/Demand

Supply/Production Tonnes
Primary 560
Secondary 900
Total 1,460
Demand

 

ITO 400
All Others 270
Total 1470
Surplus 770

Source: AIM Specialty Materials

 

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013e 2014e
Sources Virgin 444 538 544 506 505 535
Reclaim 786 904 949 902 953 981
Uses FPD 1,008 1,159 1,217 1,156 1,191 1,227
Others 229 242 255 255 270 295
Stockpiles 15 10
Annual Net* -22 31 21 -3 -3 -6
Cumulative** 86 117 138 135 132 126

Notes: *Annual Net equals sources and uses balance for that year
**Cumulative equals annual net plus prior year-end balance
Does not include all Chinese stocks and stockpiles quantities

Source: Indium Corporation

 

 

By all measures, the surplus thrown up by AIM’s figures is truly amazing. And immediately begs the question, Where is it going?

Some indium, according to AIM, will be “stranded” in the ITO recycling loop. And then there is the stockpile of indium metal held by SMG Indium Resources Ltd—as of Feb. 28, 2013, that totaled just more than 47 tons. Then there is the indium metal held by other investors.

But overhanging the market like a monstrous sword of Damocles, the Fanya Metal Exchange in, Kunming, Yunnan, China, was recently reported to have “a stock level…up to as high as 940 tonnes” of the metal. (Ryan’s Notes: Volume 19, No. 21 – May 27, 2013.) Put in context (apparently using any Western figures), this is far more than the whole of China’s production of the metal for a single year!

And while the figures from Indium Corp. describe a significantly larger amount than AIM being consumed in FPD production, they still throw up a cumulative surplus. (The discrepancy in the figures between the two companies may lie in how each treats the consumption of indium in FPD production, perhaps a difference between gross and net consumption of the metal.)

The AIM figures may beg the question of where the surplus is going, but, equally, the Indium Corp. figures—assuming the veracity of the stockpile reports from Fanya—beg the question of when all the indium actually comes.

Whichever set of figures is favored as better reflecting reality, there is no shortage of indium at the moment.

The Prospects For Indium

So, with this Chinese stockpile in mind, what are the prospects for indium? On the face of it, pretty good, if not, necessarily, for its price. There certainly appears to be plenty of the metal to go around.

The market for FPDs looks good, particularly for those with “touch” capability. ITO remains, for the time being anyway, the thin film transparent conducting oxide (TCO) of choice. And development continues with indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO), which provides higher resolution while drawing lower power. (This is not to say that ITO is not facing possible competition, as research continues on the use of graphene, carbon “nano” inks and even antimony tin oxide coatings.)

As always, though, who knows what’s going to happen in the PV market when it comes to CIGS cells? But the LED market certainly holds distinct potential for the metal.

 

 

Indium Net Demand Per Application

Source: Nyrstar (from Metal Bulletin and Nyrstar research)

 

Investment Opportunities

Since we first wrote about the metal, SMG Indium Resources Ltd. has come on to the scene. (When we wrote last, it had already filed, but because of market conditions, had not yet launched.) With the indium stocks currently held by the Fanya Metal Exchange, any investment in SMG’s indium would need to be made only after considerable deliberation. Any release of those has a good chance of putting The Deluge to shame. And no figures are readily available as to how much indium (if any) may also be held by the China Stainless Steel Exchange in Wuxi, Jiangsu.

Unfortunately things have changed little in the last several years on either the production or the recycling front. AIM Specialty Materials, Exotech and the Indium Corp. remain privately held. And Umicore’s division involved in indium is still just a small part of a very much bigger whole.

For Canada’s Teck Resources Ltd (TCK:US), Dowa Mining (part of Dowa Holdings) of Japan and Korea Zinc, indium production remains a sideline.

Unionmet (Singapore) Ltd (UMS:SP), continues to manufacture and trade indium but in addition to other zinc-based products. And although the company is headquartered in Singapore, its production facilities and R&D divisions are located in Liuzhou, Guangxi, in China.

And for Nyrstar (NYR:BB), with its smart new indium facility at the Auby smelter in northern France, the metal is just a byproduct.

So as for investment opportunities in the metal, unless you’re equipped with knowledge about what those Chinese holders of all that physical metal are going to do with it, then all the usual caveats about investing in the physical metal hold—in spades. And since there are currently really no accessible “pure play” indium companies out there, once again, it is probably worth just keeping an eye on developments in the use of indium and any opportunities that might come up in that field.

 

Resources

AIM Specialty Materials

Indium Corporation

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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