Dow Corning switches gears for sustainability

  • 15-Jun-2009 09:57 EDT
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Dow Corning, a major supplier of polycrystalline silicon for electronic displays and solar cells, is also working on low-cost, thin-film silicon photovoltaics.

Officials of Dow Corning Corp., the global supplier of silicon-based products, recently announced a change in business strategy that holds potential ramifications for the automotive industry.

Speaking at the New York Academy of Sciences in lower Manhattan, President Stephanie Burns said Dow Corning will concentrate its research efforts on finding innovative, sustainable “solutions linked to global megatrends such as the drive for efficiency, increased focus on alternative energy and clean water, and the rapid urbanization in fast-growing emerging geographies.” At the same time, the Midland, MI-based firm is expanding what she called “the largest online portal for the purchase of silicone-based products.” Both efforts, she said, “are critical to our future success.”

Dow Corning is working, for example, with French specialty chemicals maker Rhodia Group to enhance the silica additives tire makers add to rubber compounds so they exhibit less frictional resistance to rolling, which boosts fuel economy, Burns said.

“Instead of traditional carbon black reinforcement, silica is now added to tire rubber to reduce rolling resistance,” she explained. The morphology of the latest high-surface-area silica agents is engineered to improve its ability to disperse into the long polymer chains of the tire compound. Research continues to make silica an even more environmentally friendly filler option.

Company scientists and engineers are also developing silicon carbide semiconductor materials whose resistance to high temperatures make them prime candidates for use in the power electronics systems of hybrid and electric vehicles, she noted. Silicon carbide IC chips offer faster switching performance at higher power levels and better energy efficiency, while often allowing expensive cooling systems to be eliminated.

Another research focus is improved silicon-based materials for solar cells and modules, including both polycrystalline and the potentially more economical thin-film varieties. Michigan-based Hemlock Semiconductor Corp., a Dow Corning subsidiary, is the world's largest producer of polycrystalline silicon, which is also used in myriad electronic displays.

Burns added that the company is collaborating with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to raise industrial energy efficiency, where even small improvements could save the country hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In a related effort, Dow Corning has helped the denim fabric industry reduce its water use substantially.

The needs of Tier 2 and 3 automotive suppliers to improve supply efficiency are being addressed by a significant enlargement of Dow Corning’s Xiameter Web-enabled business model, reported Vice President Robert Hansen. The Xiameter website “matches up the supply of standard silicone products with customers’ needs, so that they have the flexibility of choice to get exactly what they want when they want at a stable price,” he said.

Customers will now have access to more than double the current product choices as well as more options regarding the volume of orders, whether they be truckload, pallets, or batch size. “For procurement directors, efficiency is all about choice,” Hansen said.

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