The major recent development in the silicon industry is the tripling of demand for solar grade polysilicon, with the expectation that the quantity used in solar photovoltaic (PV) modules will start to rival that in the high volume silicon markets within a few years. Furthermore, high value solar grade silicon allows much higher profit margins than the bulk markets.
Silicon recovering from the impact of the global recession
After contracting sharply in 2009, global demand for both silicon and ferrosilicon recovered in 2010 to about 1.8Mt and 7.4Mt (gross wt) respectively. In 2010, China was the largest consumer of silicon products, due primarily to growing demand for steel and aluminium products.
World production of silicon metal increased from about 1.1Mt in 2001 to 1.76Mt in 2010, mainly because of increasing Chinese output. Silicon metal was produced in fifteen countries in 2010, and Chinese production accounted for about 46% of the world total.
Mainly because of over capacity in China, some of which is used seasonally, world silicon production capacity is about two third utilised.
World production of ferrosilicon in 31 countries totalled about 7.1Mt in 2010, recovering from 6.1Mt in 2009.
Aluminium and steel still largest end-uses for silicon and ferrosilicon
The main markets for silicon metal in 2010 were as an alloying element with aluminium (45%), in silicone and silane chemicals (35%) and PV (12%). The market for ferrosilicon is largely in steel (85%) and cast iron (15%), with very small amounts used in non-ferrous alloys, dense media and other applications.
Although most aluminium products and components contain some silicon, the bulk is added to cast aluminium used in automobile engine components. Cast aluminium alloys contain up to 23%Si, and typically 7%Si, and account for over 80% of silicon metal consumption in aluminium alloys.
Most silicon consumed by steel makers is in the form of 50%Si and 75%Si grade ferrosilicon, with 75%Si grade prevailing. The term ‘silicon steels’ generally refers to those carbon steels containing above 0.4%Si.
Silicon market outlook bright due to solar cells
In 2010, solar photovoltaics were generating electricity in more than 100 countries, and are the fastest growing power-generation technology in the world. Grid connected solar capacity was about 30GW at the beginning of 2011, still a tiny fraction of the 5TW (terawatt) of total global power-generating capacity. Between 2004 and 2010, grid-connected solar capacity increased at an annual average rate of 60%. Off-grid solar installations account for about an additional 4GW.
Driven by advances in technology and scale, the cost of solar power installations has declined steadily, and financial incentives, such as preferential feed-in tariffs for solar-generated electricity and government subsidies for new installations, have supported solar installations in many countries.
As costs of both producing solar grade silicon and generating solar energy fall, demand for silicon will rise. As the solar energy market expands and matures, growth rates of 50% to 60%py will become less common, but in the period up to 2015, an average growth rate in demand for silicon of 20%py is likely, resulting in a market of about 535kt.
Although demand for silicon in solar energy will increase sharply, we expect the largest end-uses for silicon metal and ferrosilicon to remain in aluminium and steel, respectively.
Growth in demand for silicon as an alloying element in aluminium will continue to depend largely on the use of cast aluminium components by the world’s automobile industries. Increased global demand for all forms of silicon-bearing aluminium alloy in the medium term will largely depend on the expansion of Asian economies, as automobile production, electrification and construction grow. As a result of this expected demand, silicon consumption in aluminium alloys is expected to grow by around 5% per year over the next five years.
Demand for ferrosilicon in steel will be driven by rising steel production in emerging markets, particularly in the BRIC countries, with total world crude steel production forecast to grow by an annual average rate of 5-6% through to 2015.
Although falling sharply in 2009, silicon prices have reacted strongly over the latter half of 2010 and early 2011, getting back to the record levels seen in early 2008 In the longer term, assisted by anti-dumping duties in both the USA and Europe and high power costs in China, there appears to be no reason why silicon prices should not remain above US$3,000/t, possibly moving towards US$4,000/t from 2013 onwards.
Silicon and Ferrosilicon: Global industry markets and outlook, 13th edition is available at £3300 / US$5400 / €4600 from Roskill Information Services Ltd, 54 Russell, London SW19 1QL, England.