The market for products utilizing flexible components is growing rapidly.
By Dr. Harry Zervos
As more flexible devices are available, the need for better performing barriers and encapsulation materials at lower cost intensifies. The stringent requirements make this a difficult task for some applications, although others with less intensive demands are already appearing in the market. Examples include flexible electrophoretic displays (e-paper) currently being commercialized as e-book readers and smart labels. IDTechEx forecasts a $1 billion opportunity for the market for encapsulation materials for a variety of applications.
Barrier layer needs
According to the IDTechEx report, in 2012 6 percent of printed electronics will be conformal or flexible (mainly due to the huge rise in the adoption of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) on glass for smart phones and tablet applications), while the rest will remain rigid (usually because they are on a rigid glass substrate). It is projected that by 2022 the amount that is conformal/flexible will rise to 32 percent of the total value.
Supporting that increasing trend are interviews with companies like 3M, who are describing their efforts in making flexible barriers available at price points that are comparable to that of optical glass, increasing competitiveness as well as offering unique selling points such as lighter weight and increased robustness.
Nokia has shown roadmaps to move to OLED displays in their cell phones—when they are available on plastic substrates. Samsung has already moved on to OLED displays even though they are still on glass and they tend to be quite fragile. In these cases, and in others such as laptops or e-readers for children or educational purposes, the companies do not need flexible or rollable displays but they do benefit from the added robustness that flexible substrates offer.
These trends lead to an overall market forecast of $200 million dollars by 2022 for the display market alone. In OLED displays specifically, almost 2.5 million square meters of barrier material will be utilized in the making of more robust and, in some cases, flexible displays.
Flexible barriers, photovoltaics
The trend of flexible/conformal devices claiming a part of the now mature glass-based market is also appearing in the photovoltaics sector. Although the more established technologies, such as crystalline silicon and CdTe (cadmium telluride) will always remain glass based and will continue to cater for the largest amount of rooftop and solar farm installations, in some cases, specific requirements will lead to further adoption of flexibly encapsulated solar cells.
Lightweight requirements for example, integration into portable devices or conformal deposition of solar cells would make an ideal case for solar cells that are not glass-based.
The growth in this sector is not as fast as initially forecasted a few years ago, and that’s mainly relating to the slower than expected development of 3rd generation technologies (organic photovoltaics and dye-sensitized solar cells) and some difficulties in their commercialization. Limitations in these technologies’ lifetime and efficiency are making it harder for them to compete with other thin films that can also be flexible and lightweight, CIGS (Copper indium gallium selenide) or a-Si (amorphous-silicon) for example, but these issues are hopefully going to be resolved in the next few years.
Encapsulation materials going into the photovoltaics sector are going to be forming another large segment of the overall barrier layer market. IDTechEx forecasts a $380 million market by 2022 for barriers for inorganic photovoltaic technologies such as CIGS and amorphous silicon. This would correspond to a total area of barrier materials in excess of 12 million square meters by 2022.ging economies. This is already starting to change and we should see some further progress on that in the next decade to the benefit of all.