Indium Shortage Could Advance Carbon Nanotube Technologies

The big race in the consumer electronics industry is to find more indium, or maybe even an adequate replacement.

The reason being, it is this Indium which is used to create indium tin oxide or ITO. ITO is used to form transparent electrodes in liquid crystal displays and touchscreens. It makes touchscreens transparent and conduct electricity. Speculations about the shortage of indium tin oxide are rife, according to industry sources, it may have only have a 10 year supply remaining.

Figures from the US Geological Survey put the amount of indium reserves in the world, at about 16,000 tonnes. The current rate of ITO consumption suggests, those reserves will be exhausted by 2020. Indium ranks 61st in abundance in the Earth's crust at approximately 0.25 ppm, which means it is more than three times as abundant as silver, which occurs at 0.075 ppm. Fewer than 10 indium minerals are known, none occurring in significant deposits.

According to Gartner analyst Dean Freeman, the most likely replacement for ITO will be carbon nanotubes, or CNTs. But that technology isn't quite ready yet. Carbon nanotubes (also known as buckytubes) are allotropes of carbon. These cylindrical carbon molecules have novel properties which make them potentially useful in many applications in nanotechnology, electronics, optics, and other fields of materials science, as well as potential uses in architectural fields.

"I think they're still a few years away from perfecting carbon nanotubes in that application, but they're getting much, much closer," he told News Corp's Andrew Ramadge. "If you start to see additional shortages of indium tin oxide, you might see it happen sooner than later", he added.

One of the challenges of carbon nanotube technology is in refining the material to ensure its consistency.

"Where you start to get a higher cost associated in its purification steps, trying to get similar electrical characteristics, trying to get them approximately to the same size," said Mr Freeman."That's been one of the issues why we haven't seen carbon nanotubes really take over in many electrical applications" according to him.

In the meantime, Mr Freeman said the industry was looking at ways to make the existing reserves of indium last longer."Any time we get into a situation like this, at least in the electronics industry, you see multiple paths looking to resolve the problem," he said.

"So we're also figuring out how we can use less indium tin oxide. You know - thinner layers stretch it out further and so on."

So if you have put off buying an iPod or an LED Screen don't wait till 2020.


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