INSIGHT: Great green hopes for TiO2

23 July 2010 16:30  [Source: ICIS news]

By Amandeep Parmar

Solar panels at Shilin, Yunnan, ChinaLONDON (ICIS news)--It may be easy being green after all for titanium dioxide (TiO2) producers, as a slew of recent scientific breakthroughs unleash multiple environmentally friendly uses for the versatile material.

Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the Netherlands, have found that road surfaces paved with air-purifying concrete, containing TiO2, reduced the concentration of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 25-45%.

Vehicle exhausts emit NOx, which cause acid rain and smog, but the TiO2 in the paving stones is a photocatalytic material, reacting with sunlight to convert them into harmless nitrate, which is then rinsed away by the rain.

Not only that, but TiO2 also has a self-cleaning ability, according to Jos Brouwers, Professor of Building Materials at TU/e, as it breaks down algae and dirt to keep the streets clean.

“If further tests confirm our results this could be the solution for municipalities around the world with air quality problems,” exclaimed Brouwers.

The next advance has come from scientists at the University of Leeds, England who discovered how to recover significant quantities of rare-earth oxides, indispensible for the manufacture of hybrid cars, wind turbines and energy-efficient lighting, present in TiO2 minerals.

These rare-earth oxides are rarely found in sufficient quantities to allow for mining. However, extracting them while refining TiO2 to 99% purity is relatively cheap and also eliminates hazardous waste and carbon dioxide emissions.

“An impressive environmental double benefit,” said Professor Animesh Jha, who led the research.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a team at the University of Minnesota managed to use TiO2 to harness the power of the sun and potentially double the efficiency levels of solar cells, which at the moment rarely exceed 30%.

Used as a semi-conductor, TiO2 can pull the hot electrons absorbed from the sun’s rays quickly, before they lose their energy, thus introducing the prospect of solar cells approaching 66% efficiency according to Professor Eray Aydil of the research team.

So, could developments like these make TiO2 the green gold of the future and open up environmentally conscious and lucrative new markets for global producers?

Well possibly, but there are still some considerable hurdles to overcome.

The volume of  TiO2 going into uses such as solar cells is very limited according to producers and not a significant proportion of the market.

“It is not important at the moment, the industry is growing but volumes are not big,” stated one manufacturer.

An issue is that the margins are simply not there, with one trader commenting that TiO2 grades viable for use in solar panels cost up to €200-300/tonne more to produce than standard grade material.

Professor Brouwers admitted that the air-purifying stones cost 50% more than regular concrete largely due to the TiO2, though he added that total road building costs would only be 10% higher.

And this comes at a time when the global TiO2 market is going through an extremely volatile period, with prices having risen €270-300/tonne ($350-385/tonne) in northwest Europe this year alone, amid robust demand and limited output due to plant outages.

Prices are currently around €2,400-2,600/tonne FD (free delivered) NWE (northwest Europe), according to ICIS.

Players aren’t too optimistic that things will improve soon either, because demand from the typical downstream industries of paints and coatings continues to be strong. Customers report lead times of at least eight weeks.

“There will be a continuous process of price increases until the first quarter of  2011,” opined one supplier.

Inevitably, TiO2 will only go green when the bottom line goes black, so it could be some time before we’re able to take a deep breath while walking down the road.

“We expect more material to flow into these areas in the future, but we haven’t seen the breakthrough yet,” a producer said.

($1 = €0.78)

For more on titanium dioxide visit ICIS chemical intelligence
To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Amandeep Parmar
+44 208 652 3214

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