Tin is now leap-frogging other technology metals as new applications found
The managing director of an Australian tin explorer emailed me today. He’s been following my interest in tin. Anyway, he has been collecting material on tin’s technological uses and some of that material is included in today’s post. But our mining man is feeling somewhat frustrated at the market’s slowness to get interested in this metal. He wrote: “I find it fascinating that graphite companies are trading at high valuations based on the potential to use natural graphite in Li Ion batteries but tin companies continue to be in the doldrums with five or six high potential application of tin in the pipeline and very solid current fundamentals”. Good point, don’t you think?
Last month I posted an item reporting that Washington State University was working on building a better battery for smartphones. Actually, the story first emerged two years ago when some technical journals featured the work of Professor Grant Norton and his team at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. They had come up with the idea to introduce a tin anode rather than a carbon one, so — they hoped — tripling capacity and allowing faster recharging.
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But just in the past few days has come another potential use for tin. According to a scientific report the miner sent to me, Oxford University researchers have found that lead now used in solar cells can be replaced by tin. Its says the Oxford team have developed a Perovskite solar cell solar cell using tin which promises to be cheap and easy to produce, opening the way (potentially) for cheaper large-scale solar generation.
According to a recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, perovskite is the term for a particular mineral crystal structure, most commonly a calcium titanium trioxide mineral, and is applied to anything that adopts this same structure. To quote the newspaper: “Perovskite materials for solar cells were first reported in 2009, but they were very low efficiency and had to remain liquid in use. Not promising. But it caught the attention of several research groups, in particular that of Henry Snaith at Oxford, and Andrew Rappe at the University of Pennsylvania. By doing some clever polymer chemistry, they were able to make solid perovskite solar cells, and then, in only 18 months, engineered these up to efficiencies of 16%. It took decades of research on silicon to get such improvements. But the polymer was expensive and complex. Still, Science magazine classed perovskite solar cells as one of the breakthroughs of 2013″.
The Oxford team is about to publish their findings in the journal Energy & Environmental Science which will outline that non-toxic tin can supplant lead in these solar cells.
Just six months ago, Scientific American published an article: “Could Atomically Thin Tin Transform Electronics?”. Think stanene. And what is fascinating is that not only does that word sound similar to “graphene” but, like the latter, is one-atom thick. Over recent years, as the journal outlines, researchers have made insulators from compounds of electron-rich, heavy elements including mercury, bismuth, antimony, tellurium and selenium. None of those was a perfect conductor of electricity at room temperature. It continued: “Then Stanford University theoretical physicist Shoucheng Zhang and colleagues decided to investigate tin, a similarly electron-rich, heavy element. The team’s calculations suggest that single -atom layers of tin are topological insulators where electrons flow perfectly at or above room temperature”.
Sure, the quantities of metal are minute in these applications but it is the cumulative effect that should, at some stage, begin to register with investors. Tin has the advantage of the fact that its older uses, and I think particularly of lining food cans (beverages cans not so much, as they tend to be aluminium) and the fact that as developing countries get richer their people don’t just eat at KFC but also start buying canned food, are holding and potentially growing. More recently, tin has replaced lead in solder in the electronics industries. These two markets will, of course, consume the bulk of tin produced, but not only will all the new technology applications provide new markets, they will also eventually sharpen tin’s image as a metal of the future as well as the past.
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