Tag Archives: Solvay

The Multifortress Strategy: One Approach for Corporate Survival in the Chemicals and Materials Sector

An increasing number of major global chemical firms are adopting a similar approach to constructing their companies: assembling a handful of diverse and established chemical and material businesses each with a high manufacturing entry barrier. Lux calls this approach the Multifortress Strategy. The high entry barrier creates the fortress-like nature of the individual businesses. The revenue of the various businesses added together creates a corporate entity of sustainable size. The multiple businesses also offer some protection from a downturn in one or a few businesses. Continue reading

PV Modules in 2030 Will be More Technologically Diverse Than Today

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With the gloomy solar venture capital (VC) funding for startups, the combination of large corporations and academic and government research institutions will provide the impetus for innovation in the photovoltaic (PV) landscape. With evolutionary improvements in conventional module designs unlikely to reach the $1/W system price target even by 2030, there is certainly ample room to move, provided developers know where to look and where the highest potential lies. Many corporations are indeed active in this regard, with 940 active partnerships globally for PV research chasing the opportunity, with Hanwha, Solvay-Rhodia, and Dow Chemical leading in the number of academic partnerships for PV research, while IMEC, ECN, Georgia Tech, University of Delaware, and Arizona State University alone have cumulatively formed 132 partnerships with large corporations. With continued emphasis on developing new PV materials and processes, the mix of technologies in the market in 20 years from now will reflect these R&D investments. The question is, what will the mix of commercialized technologies be?

Given the existing infrastructure for x-Si module manufacturing, the technology is here to stay for the long haul. However today’s prices are most certainly below cost and evolutionary improvements in existing cell designs are not going to be enough to bring manufacturing costs down. Therefore disruptive cell designs such as front/back junction cells, silver-free metallization and epi-Si-based cells will enable lower costs without affecting module efficiencies. Materials and equipment suppliers should continue to target products for x-Si PV because it will maintain the lion’s share of the market for the foreseeable future.

Change is also inevitable beyond x-Si, with CZTS and tandem CIGS will be able to reach commercialization to take CIGS to the next level. However, given the process immaturity for SnS, the technology will not be commercially feasible even by 2030. The world of cadmium is not set for as much diversity, with flexible CdTe, or new materials such as CdS and PbS systems not ready for primetime even in 2030 because they will be far from reaching target module costs and efficiencies. For advanced III-V technologies, only planar III-V on Si tandem-cell-based modules and parallel III-V modules will reach commercial feasibility. Lastly, within the OPV and DSSC next-generation technologies, graphene-based OPV cells will not be commercially viable even by 2030, whereas QSS-DSSC and hybrid organic/inorganic will realize a small market share in that time.

There is little doubt that many companies were burned by the solar bubble, and many others are cautious about solar today even if they avoided the carnage. However, growth in solar is inevitable, consolidation and supply-demand equilibration is under way, and the technology roadmap lays out a path for innovation materials companies to enter and find opportunity.

Source: Lux Research report “Continuing Education: Going Back to School for Photovoltaic Innovation” — client registration required.

Mercury rolls around

Mercury is set to ooze back into the news as the E.U. mercury export ban comes into effect next year, and a similar ban in the U.S. comes into force in 2013. The bans were enacted to prevent large amounts of cheap mercury from reaching destitute gold miners in gold-bearing regions, mostly South America and Africa. Currently miners who cannot afford the most basic equipment are able to afford mercury, which greatly improves their gold production yields. Attempts to push alternatives among these populations have made little headway. So the bans are intended to raise prices on the toxic metal, and reduce its low-end allure.

For some perspective, about half of the mercury released in the environment is man-made, and much of that is released from coal-fired power plants. About 11% comes from gold mining. Unfortunately, subsistence gold miners commonly practice their trade in streams that local populations use for drinking, and subsequently flow to heavily fished coastal waters, making the practice a profound health issue.

However, the ban will have its share of collateral damage. For example, European chlor-alkali manufacturers, like Akzo Nobel and Solvay, use an older mercury-intense method of generating sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas. The process, developed in 1892, produces sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas in equal parts via electrolysis of brine with the help of a massive mercury electrode. This dinosaur of a method has somehow survived to the present (likely due to low margins and little working capital) with surprisingly little bad press, and despite a longstanding voluntary agreement to phase out traditional processes that use mercury by 2020.

More modern, mercury-free and less energy-intense processes have appeared. They either use asbestos membranes or newer perfluorinated ionomer membrane technologies from players such as Asahi Kasei Chemicals. Yet banning the export of mercury eliminates a ready market for the expensive metal waste, and thus counter-intuitively de-incentivizes a shift to more modern chlor-alkali production methods. In the E.U., manufacturers will now have to store the old mercury electrode material in steel drums at the bottom of old salt mines. On the other hand, expect commodity chemical manufacturers who are out ahead of the curve, like Dow Chemical, to benefit from being out of the coming mercury spotlight.