Haines & Maassen Metallhandelsgesellschaft mbH

Indium: Rare, but indispensable

Nonferrous metals: The so-called special metals or strategic metals are of particular importance due to their origin or application. Without Indium we will not be able to keep our eyes on the screen in future.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have to do with indium every day, be it in smartphones, sat navs, computer monitors, touch screens on machines, or electronic information screens: indium is the material that makes the displays transparent and electrically conductive. The situation in the photovoltaic field is similar: here indium is a decisive element in the CIGS-module. These and other applications in LED technology, alloys for dental fillings, special soldering metals and many other fields make indium indispensable.

Indium is often used to save energy (as in LED technology) or to produce energy   (as in photovoltaic systems). This is why it is a small but extremely important component of future technologies for the next decades.

The current annual world production of primary indium amounts to about 600 to 700 tonnes. Roughly the same quantity is produced by recycling. Indium is as rare in the earth’s crust as silver. The majority of recyclable indium is recycled at the point of origin, a smaller quantity stems from the recycling of material returned to solder and seal manufacturers.

About 60 per cent of primary world production is from China, followed by six other countries each with a market share between five and ten per cent. As with many elements, China has an enormous influence on the world market for indium – and has already started to use this influence: The Chinese Metal Exchange Fanya already stocks around 2,300-2,500 tonnes of indium. It is not yet clear whether the aim is to push up prices or if it is a state precaution for later years. But either way, the People’s Republic has taken twice the annual world production from the market.

This shows that China is taking control geopolitically and could more or less dictate the West’s course of action in the future. As a result semi-finished and finished products will more likely be “Made in China” than “Made in Germany”. One might assume that European and in particular German politics would be interested in taking steps to counteract such measures. So far not much has happened – and any steps that have been taken have come much too late.

Renowned studies agree: a major shortage of indium is just a matter of time. Some speak of ten to fifteen years, others of twenty years. Decisive factors are a considerable rise in demand in these periods and increasingly difficult primary production. The alternative is to force recycling.

Some steps have been taken in this direction, but one thing is clear: only what has first been produced can be recycled. Primary production and recycling could be increased to about 1,500 to 1,600 tonnes per year in the foreseeable future, but many market researchers expect annual demand to increase far beyond 2,000 tonnes. Efforts have been made to find substitutes, for example graphene in displays and organic compounds for LEDs. These replacement strategies are urgently necessary in order to maintain many applications in the long term.

Indium: Distribution of indium sources worldwide    Indium: Three world markets in comparison     Development of indium prices from 2010 to 2014

This becomes especially clear when looking at the above tables. So far India has a low level of electrification. Photovoltaics would be a possible method of generating energy – and this would increase the demand for indium. The aim of the Indian government is to provide the whole country with electricity within five to ten years. This in turn will lead to a dramatic increase in the demand for electrical equipment: TVs, computer monitors, mobile phones and numerous other devices with displays. The consequences for indium demand are obvious.

This could be summarised in the words of my former professor: “Here we see a typical potential excess demand in a very inflexible supply situation.” In other words, indium could soon become scarce. Today two to nine grams of indium are needed to produce a screen: If the price explodes from around 600 euros per kilo today to 2,000 euros per kilo, the resulting increase in the price of a screen would be about 3 euros to 16 euros – probably not enough to have a lasting effect on consumer behaviour.

Indium consumption