New energy market seeks chemical innovation

Alternative energizers

13 February 2009 11:53  [Source: ICB]

Innovations from the chemical industry keep the alternative energy market going and going...

AS THE world goes back to sun, wind, and plants for additional energy sources, the chemical industry is making sure it will be done in high-tech and cost-efficient ways.

Innovations coming from the chemical industry are playing vital roles in the alternative energy market, which saw global investments of $7bn-9bn (€5.5bn-9bn) last year. Those figures are from venture investments alone, according to various industry reports.

US-based market research firm Cleantech Group reported a record $8.4bn in clean technology venture investments in North America, Europe, China and India last year, up by 38% from $6.1bn in 2007. The top sectors were solar, biofuels, transportation, such as electric vehicles, fuel cells, advanced batteries and wind.

"2008 saw solar take a 40% share of clean technology venture investment dollars, led by mega-investment rounds in thin-film solar, concentrated solar thermal and solar service provider companies," said Brian Fan, Cleantech's senior director of research, in a statement. "Investors also continued to migrate from first-generation ethanol and biodiesel technologies to next generation, led by algae and synthetic biology companies."

He added that there have been expanding interests in sectors such as smart grid, small-scale wind turbines, plastic recycling, green buildings and agriculture technologies.

The solar energy market has been a growing profit source for chemical companies such as DuPont, silicone producer Dow Corning, specialty chemical company Rohm and Haas, and industrial gas producer Air Products, all based in the US.

DuPont estimates the solar energy market will grow by 50% year-over-year, reaching several hundred billion dollars by 2020. DuPont expects its sales of several product lines in the photovoltaics industry to exceed $1bn within the next five years.

SUNNY PROFIT FORECAST

The solar industry is also Dow Corning's primary focus, among other alternative energies, says Eric Peeters, executive director of Dow Corning Solar Solutions.

"Advancing solar technology is a significant priority for the company, and we've invested a tremendous amount of resources in this area," says Peeters. "The market is growing at 30-40% annually, so even if the global financial challenges reduced that number, we are still expecting solid double-digit growth in the industry."

Dow Corning's goal, says Peeters, is to reduce the cost per watt of electricity generated to make solar energy economically competitive. The company's researchers are said to be developing new products and processes that help increase the efficiency of solar cells, reduce the cost to manufacture cells and make the cells more durable.

In December 2008, Dow Corning announced that it was building a new monosilane manufacturing facility in Hemlock, Michigan, US, adjacent to a polysilicon manufacturing site of its joint venture company Hemlock Semiconductor. Hemlock is currently expanding its Michigan facility and also building a new polysilicon site in Clarksville, Tennessee, US.

Polysilicon is the key raw material used to manufacture most solar cells. Monosilane gas is also critical in the manufacture of thin-film solar cells, says Peeters.

Air Products, which provides gases and materials for the production of photovoltaics (PV), also notes the market's 30%/year growth rate. The company is particularly excited about next generation solar technologies such as silicon thin films.

"Thin-film technologies are expected to gain market share from nominally 5% to over 20% in the next few years, as OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] offer turnkey factories which will be built throughout the world," says Air Products PV global marketing manager Dave Tavianini.

"These factories use bulk and specialty gases, and our ability to bring cost-effective supply to numerous worldwide locations is an important factor to driving these technologies to grid parity and thus supports increased PV adoption," he adds.

Overall, Air Products estimates that 65% of its $10.4bn in annual sales comes from three major areas - energy efficiency, clean energy and technologies, and alternative energy.

Rohm and Haas notes China as a huge potential market for PV, "as the region is expected to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020," says Matt Moynihan, technology and marketing director, Circuit Board Technologies at Rohm and Haas Electronic Materials.

The company entered the PV market in 2006 with its offering of PV fabrication materials that offer cell efficiency improvements and increases manufacturing yield.

"It's an attractive market for us where we've been able to leverage our deep expertise in circuit board materials such as metallization, imaging, texturizing into the PV industry," says Moynihan. "As an advanced materials company, we believe the growth of the alternative energy market will have a positive impact for our future growth."

Rohm and Haas is also offering a range of durable adhesives for PV applications. "Long-term durability is another key performance for PV module producers," adds Moynihan.

In the wind energy sector, the company's impact modifiers are said to improve the overall mechanical properties of epoxy thermosets used for wind turbines.

FUELING GROWTH

German specialty chemical company Evonik Industries has also stepped up its commitment in the PV market as it strengthens its global market position in chlorosilanes and monosilanes.

Evonik is also providing solutions in the biofuel and electric vehicle sectors, says Thomas Bates, president of the company's North American arm, Evonik Degussa.

The company expects to start later this year its new 60,000 tonne/year alkoxide facility in Mobile, Alabama, US, and is also planning to build another facility in Brazil. Alkoxides are used as catalysts in biodiesel production.

Evonik is also collaborating with Germany-based car manufacturer Daimler for further developing lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

"Top-notch, high-tech products are essential to solving environment and climate problems," says Bates. "New markets and opportunities await those companies that can deliver the right solutions at the right time. Realistic energy solutions are the decisive challenge."

Another area the company is working on is energy efficiency. "We believe this is the mega-trend," adds Bates. "Last year, we decided to earmark nearly €2bn [$2.6bn] for energy efficiency up to the end of 2010."

For US-based Dow Chemical, solar, wind and biomass projects are the company's main focus, although it is still in the development stage with its PV efforts and has yet to offer products in the market.

Dow is investing $50m to develop its Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) roofing and building materials, says Rich Wells, Dow's vice president of energy.

"The Dow product will be integrated directly into roofing material to create a solar shingle," says Wells. "Through our BIPV efforts, Dow plans to bring solar-generated electricity costs below 10 cents/kilowatt [kW] by 2015."

The company is also working to incorporate alternative energy into its operations. Last year, Dow installed a solar energy farm at its Pittsburg, California, US facility, which is capable of generating 210kW. At its Dalton, Georgia, US facility, Dow is using methane gas from a local landfill in place of natural gas to power the manufacturing facility.

"The site uses approximately 240bn Btu/year of methane gas, the amount equal to the energy used by 2,100 US homes annually," says Wells. "The solar energy farm in California, meanwhile, has enough energy to power 175 homes."

In the wind sector, the company's epoxy chemistry and technology is said to be making wind blades stronger, lighter and easier to manufacture.

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By: Doris de Guzman
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