U.S.-based industry analyst firm, NanoMarkets recently released the white paper, which is the first of its kind looking at the commercial and not just the technological aspects of the burgeoning transparent electronics industry.
NanoMarkets predicts that the market for transparent electronics will grow exponentially over the coming years. Revenues are expected to reach US$325 million (251 million) in 2015, going on to reach $1.1 billion (850 million) in 2019. A large portion of this overall market will come from interventions by solar companies.
According to the report, the transparent electronics market has the potential to become a strong revenue stream as its use within solar products grows, particularly as it relates to building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV).
"The solar panel industry will be desperately seeking ways to improve its economics," the report says, positing BIPV as a prime example of how this can happen. "BIPV is a product design strategy that integrates PV panels with other building materials. By doing so, the shared cost of the substrate can significantly reduce the total cost compared with buying the roofing or siding plus the PV panel separately."
In one forecast, the study says the market value for absorber layer materials for transparent solar panels will rise sharply by 2020.
The analysts foresee a total market value of $77.2 million (59 million) in 2012, $226.6 million (175 million) in 2015 and all the way up to $784.7 million (606 million) in 2019 – an overall growth of more than 1,000 percent.
The report further suggests that there is enough of a market in transparent electronics to benefit established specialty chemical firms, as well as having room for start-ups.
NanoMarkets concedes that the worst is yet to come for the solar industry, but suggests that new market opportunities in BIPV via transparent electronics could provide the major boost the industry needs to stave off the effects of the current economic slowdown and less than favorable tariff structures. The company adds that organic photovoltaics (OPV) could be greatly benefited by transparent electronics, particularly in the BIPV sphere.
"While NanoMarkets does not believe that transparent BIPV is the killer app that OPV has long sought," it says, "this is one niche were OPV would appear to have an inherent competitive advantage.
"Transparent BIPV today is not really a materials play, but we would expect it to be much more about materials going forward; with the ultimate goal being the development of PV absorber layers that are inherently transparent."
They company also noticed that while organic electronics often use transparent materials, no companies have yet focused on transparency as a major goal, which may also provide further opportunities in the space.
Areas of opportunity and setbacks
The report identifies that with research and development in oxide electronics, transparent organic electronics and transparent nanoelectrics, the developments could greatly influence the path of solar panels as the technology improves.
"We see the transparent electronics space evolving and we note here that the optically active materials that will be used in smart windows and solar panels will also evolve in sophistication and performance," the report explains.
It also says there will be a marketplace for the technology in both the automotive and military markets, which are both potentially huge revenue streams for the solar industry.
The paper does point out, however, that being "transparent" in the photovoltaics sector is not what it means to other industries.
"While in the case of the other sectors that we have reviewed in this article," the report says, "’transparent’ really means transparent, in the PV sector it means something less than that."
It continues, "The point here is that no material can be both completely absorbent and transparent; so there is always a tradeoff."
NanoMarkets sets a general transparency target for commercial BIPV glass at around 50 percent. This is a figure that lets in most of the current thin film photovoltaic materials, which, if made thin enough, can be at least considered translucent. In addition, since novel transparent materials for photovoltaic absorbers do not have to be that transparent, the bar is lowered a little in terms of product development.
On the practicalities of the technology, much of the work in the field has focused on using semiconductor materials based on metal oxides of various kinds, citing technological developments that have given the field increased credibility recently.
"Although the semiconducting transparent oxide class of materials, as yet, lacks truly useful p-type semiconductors, functioning devices have been built using n-type oxide semiconductors," the report says. "Indeed, there can be little doubt that the whole area of transparent electronics received a considerable boost in credibility in the early 2000s from a number of research devices (TFTs) that were built using (mostly) ZnO as a semiconductor."
Who to watch
According to the report, one large company to watch in this space is 3M, which has a broad patent portfolio covering transparent conducting oxides and is a recognized leader in this field.
Another that has made an impact is Kurt J. Lesker, which has reported to NanoMarkets in the past that its materials group has been able to identify 17 novel transparent conducting oxides which it believes have the potential to eventually make a commercial impact.
Saint-Gobain was further highlighted as a potential future player. "Saint-Gobain has not specifically identified transparent electronics as a target market, but seems to be creeping into this space and is well positioned for further growth in the future," states the report.