Wandering through the references to indium metal on the internet, I sometimes see it referred to as, "that 'rare' metal." But is it really so rare? I recently talked to my colleague, Claire Miko, Director, Metals and Chemicals for Indium Corporation and asked if the reports of the rarity of the metal (like the death of Mark Twain) were greatly exaggerated.
Question: The element indium is widely used today in many electronic (glass coating, low temperature solder, hermetic sealing and thermal interface material) and solar applications (CIG solar panels), but very little is known about it. Can you tell us where indium metal comes from?
Claire: Indium is a by-product of several base metals such as zinc, lead, copper, tin and other poly metallic ores. It is very abundant on the crust of the earth (much more than silver for example and the annual silver production is at least 40 times bigger than the annual indium production). Geographically indium is abundant in
Question: Does indium have to be refined after it is mined?
Claire: Indium is present in the base metal ores at ppm levels. It first needs to be separated from the base ore and concentrated. This is done at the base metal smelter (for example during the refining of zinc, lead, copper, tin etc). It is then further refined and purified at indium refineries.
Question: Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) is the one of largest indium-containing products today. How much of the indium mined goes to making ITO?
Claire: About 50% of the indium refined is used for making ITO. A larger percentage is needed to start the ITO target productions but the sputtering process used (when putting the ITO layer onto the glass) is inefficient and generates a large quantity of indium which is reclaimed and is then recycled and put back into circulation.
Question: Is there enough indium available to meet the current and future needs of the marketplace?
Claire: The indium production has always expanded to meet growing demand. Indium production grew from 70MT (metric tonnes/year to over 500MT/year over the last 20 years. At the moment only one-third of the indium mined yearly is being refined in indium metal, another third accumulates in residues that are more expensive to treat but they remain available for future processing, and the last third is currently lost because it does not reach a base metal smelter which has the equipment to separate it from the base metal ore. Investments at these smelters would enable the extraction and refining of these quantities if the need arose.
Question: Are there recycling programs in place to recover unused ITO from the targets used to deposit it onto the glass surfaces where it is used? What is the rate of recovery?
Claire: There is ample capacity to treat spent ITO targets (as per point 3) and the recovery process is now mature and very efficient. The cycle time of this process has also now become very short enabling a very quick return of the refined indium for new consumption.
Question: Are there any viable alternatives to ITO?
Claire: A far as we know ITO remains the best material for LCD and other flat panel displays applications. It offers the best performances in terms of optical transparency, electrical resistivity, uniformity of both transparency and resistivity, chemical and mechanical stability, resistance to corrosion, and, finally, uniformity of etching.
The cost of the ITO on 42” TV represents less than $2 and less than 1% of the display cost. It is a small cost to pay to ensure that the quality of the display is maintained. Alternative materials have shown significant process problems with resistivity, uniformity and chemical and mechanical stability.