News Article

Albemarle Amplifies The Bubbler Brigade

As a suppler of metal organic raw materials to companies providing MOCVD precursors, Albemarle had been quietly serving our industry for many years. Now the multi-national chemicals specialist is coming into full view by launching its PureGrowth line, a move designed to fulfil the hike in demand for materials for LED manufacturing. Richard Stevenson quizzes Albemarle’s Vice President, Performance Catalyst Solutions, Amy Motto, and the company Business Development Manager, Electronic Materials, Al Knight, about this venture.

Q - Why does the III-V industry need another supplier of metal organic precursors?

AM - We got into this because the market pulled us. There was a huge shortage in the market in 2009 and 2010. Chipmakers could not get enough high-purity products to keep their plants running. We were getting calls from companies making LED chips begging us as a leading organo-metallic supplier to jump into this market.

We were very familiar with these materials because we have such a long history here - we’ve actually been supplying most of the high-purity metal-organic producers with organo-metallic precursors. But until fairly recently it was never a business that we were interested in jumping into because it was very small volume.

When we started looking at growth data we felt that there were only three major producers at that time. They were not announcing capacity as fast as the market needed. So we thought that this was a naturally step for us, given our global footprint, our background in organo-metallics and the experience we have in highpurity products in other product lines.

Q - What have you done to underpin your launch of metal organic bubblers?

AM - I would say two things: We’ve added significant staffing and significant capital. We’ve hired some experts in the industry and we have really staffed up our sales team and our R&D team to make sure that we enter this market quickly, appropriately and get off the ground.

We have also invested a significant amount of capital since 2010 to make sure that we do this correctly: That we have all the right analytical tools; all the right packaging tools; and the right manufacturing assets to make sure that we have the best-quality, best repeatability process on the market.

We don’t plan for any additional staffing, but we do continue to foresee some significant capital being spent over the next few years.

Q - How do the challenges of supplying metal organics compare to those faced by an LED chipmaker?

AM - I think it is a little bit more straightforward for LED manufacturers, because they buy turn-key manufacturing facilities. They do need experienced engineers and operators to run them, but they can manage that. For a high-purity metal-organic supplier, it’s not so straightforward. There are patents out on how to make the product; there are difficult handling issues with these types of pyrophoric materials; and a high purity cleanroom and high-quality analytical measurements need to be put in place. It’s also much more complicated from a manufacturing perspective.

Q - Have you set up any supply contracts with chipmakers already?

AM - We have qualified many customers, especially on trimethylgallium, which is the main demand product. We have also qualified some on triethylgallium, which is a kind of second tier product, and we are continuing to push for more qualifications.

Q - How wide is the range of metal organic precursors that you are offering?

AM - The plan for that is to have ultra high purity TMG, TEG, TMI, TMA and Cp2Mg (dicyclopentadienyl magnesium) in the portfolio under the PureGrowth line. We plan to have all of those done and fully commercialised by the end of first quarter 2012. We are on track to do that. We will phase them in over time and we are right on schedule.

Q - Our industry is a global one. Are you able to supply materials across the world?

AM - That’s Albemarle’s strength. We have a long history in organo-metallic supply and we have supplied organometallics to pretty much every polymer producer in the

world. We are talking about nice places, strange places, everywhere. We have more than 20 people located all around the world focused in this area. We’ve dedicated some additional sales people in key regions such as Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China. We also have warehousing; we have logistics squared away; and we know how to handle dangerous goods. We built that platform for the high-purity metal organics. We are producing these products in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and we have plans to also produce them in our facility in Yeosu, Korea.

Q If a customer places an order with you, how long will they wait for a delivery?

AM We plan to have local stock in every major consuming region in the world, so we expect to have a week’s turnaround time - the time we get an order to the time we deliver. If it’s an order for something fancy, you’ll have to give us more time to put it in place.

Q Chipmakers need a guaranteed supply of materials. Why can they depend on you for material year in, year out?

AM We’re in this for the long haul and we are committed to expanding in the right areas of the world as needed.

Albemarle is a speciality chemicals maker, and we focus a lot on quality and on customer relationships. We are not going to enter a market because we feel like it today. When we make a decision to do something we are committed to it, and we want to deliver high quality products and offer the best customer and technical service. We have that reputation in all of the areas that we are involved in.

We are also committed to expansion. We are well aware that the electronics industry may have new requirements for materials. They may slightly change what the material is – they may drastically change what the material is. We know that it might not be TMG required for the next 40 years; it may be something else. We are committed to staying with the industry, continuing to innovate with customers and innovate ourselves.

Q - Your rivals have increased the range of bubbler sizes over the last few years. What sizes of bubbler are you offering?

AK - In the interests of getting materials to the market in a timely manner, we concentrated on the popular sizes: the 1.2 and the 4 litre bubbler. But we have designs and are in the process of building larger bubblers for customers that request this. We are also looking at bulk refill options in the near future.

Q - Are you offering chipmakers any incentives to sample your products?

AK - The reception that we have had in the market place has been very positive. For a large part, incentives have not been necessary to convince the chipmakers to try our products. They all seem very excited about having a new supplier in the market, and beyond the occasional free sample to run qualifications nothing else has been necessary.

Q - Prices of some materials, such as indium, are highly volatile. Will these strong fluctuations in price be passed on to the customer?

AM - We have a lot of experience with expensive metals with volatile pricing, like molybdenum and rare earths.

We understand how to buy those in the most costeffective manner. We also understand how to reduce the utilization of some of those materials so that we can offer a better price to the customers. But at the end of the day, we are not going to loose margin or profitability.

Q - Impurities drive down device performance.  How pure are the materials you supply?

AM - We’ve certainly got the ‘six-nines’ purity that is required today. But we believe that [impurity specifications] are going to be more and more strict, so we are not just stopping at what one customer wants.

We are continuing to drive to have the best performing product in the market. We have really ramped up our analytical efforts. We know how to detect extremely low impurities, and we are going to keep monitoring that and driving it down and improving our process.

Q - How do you determine the quality of your material in your metal organic bubblers?

AK - So far, every batch of TMG and TEG that we produce has been sent to a third party to grow a thin film of GaAs. We’ve conducted a Hall test on these thin films, looking at the mobility as well as the background doping. This ensures that it will be successful in MOCVD applications.

In conjunction with that we do analytical testing using ICPMS [inductively coupled plasma-mass spectroscopy], which has a very low detection limit, and also proton NMR for the oxygen impurities.

Q - Trimethylindium has a reputation as a difficult source to work with, partly due to variations in ‘pick-up’ concentrations. How stable is the trimethylindium gas flow produced by your source?

AK - In parallel with the scale up of the chemistry for TMI [that we are doing right now], we have a couple of designs for bubblers to give good stability as well as good utilisation. We plan on conducting tests with those bubblers using an Epison [in-line gas concentration monitor] to determine the pick-up rate and utilization. Once we fix a design for that bubbler we will start building.

Q - There are safety issues associated with handlingn metal organics. How do you help the customer in this regard?

AM - That’s really where our strength lies. In all of our organo-metallic business that we supply today we’re doing safety shows, training operators, training engineers and carrying out a significant product stewardship program. We are surprised that there is not more of a demand for that in the LED market.

Q - The LED business will be your primary market.  Will you also be going after other parts of the compound semiconductor industry?

AM - Our aim is to be the leading high-purity or regular-purity organo-metallic supplier to the electronics industry. So wherever there is a need for an organometallic, at whatever type of quality, we would like to be there and supply.

Q - Some academics have MOCVD tools. Can you cater for their relatively modest needs, in terms of material volumes?

AK - Yes. Students eventually become customers in the commercial world, and if they have experience with our materials, our quality and our service, then we will look at that as an investment in the future. So we have a capability and can supply smaller bubblers down to 150 ml, which is typically used for a lot of research in institutions.


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