Silicon: Semiconductor shortage impacting automotive industry
Posted 19th January 2021 in Industry news. By Nils Backeberg
According to Reuters, automakers around the world have been caught off-guard by a shortage of semiconductors that has required the industry to compete against the consumer electronics industry for chip supplies. Leading semiconductor manufacturers reassigned capacity from automakers after the pandemic cut down vehicle sales, instead shipping chips to companies that produce smartphones, gaming systems and other electronic goods that remained in high demand.
Several companies, including Volkswagen, Nissan, Ford, Toyota and others, have been impacted and are struggling to secure the chips to maintain production lines. All chips, whether bound for a laptop or a vehicle, start life as a silicon wafer, an industry that has always struggled to keep up with sudden demand spikes.
Polycrystalline silicon (polysilicon) is used in the production of silicon wafers. Polysilicon remains only the third-largest end-use for silicon metal worldwide, however, it has been the fastest growing of the three major applications for silicon metal in the past two decades with its share of global demand rising from 3% in 2000 to 20% in 2019.
Silicon metal is consumed directly in the production of poly-crystalline silicon wafers for use in photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, and indirectly in mono-crystalline silicon wafers for use in semiconductors for integrated circuits and a range of electronic equipment. Until 2007, the production of mono-crystalline silicon wafers for use in semiconductors was the largest end-use for polysilicon. The consumption of silicon metal in polysilicon began to take off significantly after 2009, fuelled in part by generous subsidies for producers and consumers of solar products in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. By 2019, the proportion of global polysilicon demand accounted for by semiconductor applications had fallen to just 16%.
Though Asia accounts for about 70% of global silicon semiconductor wafer output, China remains a relatively small player with a market share of about 15%, in contrast to its dominance of the solar value chain. The leading producing countries are South Korea, Taiwan, the USA and Japan, with over 50% of supply consolidated into the five largest producers.
The rapid advancement of technology both drives and restrains the demand for silicon chips and wafers, and the constantly changing balance of these influences has led to a haphazard growth over the last decade, while silicon wafers in the solar industry have enjoyed a consistent growth. Looking forward, Roskill forecasts that the solar industry will continue to drive growth in demand for silicon metal with double digit increases in demand to 2023. Moreover, while semiconductor demand as a whole is expected to remain in the low single-digit growth rates over the next decade, the impacts of COVID-19 are already indicating a haphazard growth year in 2021.
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