Silicones manufacturing is an $11 billion global industry, with 2.1 million metric tons of formulated silicone products sold around the world. Of the silicone volumes exported to Asia, the volumes exported to China constitutes 68% of all products sold there.
The silicone industry in China has experienced a rise in development since 2000. In 2016, China accounted for 55% of the world’s silicone production capacity and 45% for output and consumption. After decades of development, China now has a comprehensive silicone industrial system featuring production of raw materials, intermediates and end products, education, scientific research, engineering development and design, as well as supporting industries in the areas of processing agents, equipment manufacturing, analysis and testing, automation, logistics and warehousing, and environmental protection.
In China, silicone materials support innovation efforts in developing strategic emerging industries, such as:
- Energy conservation
- Environmental protection
- Next generation information technology
- New energy
- Defense and military
- High-end equipment manufacturing
Silicone materials account for 30% of the total material consumption in these emerging industries.
Because silicones are vital ingredients in diverse numbers of final applications, they may be supplied directly to producers of final products, but more often they pass through several stages of what is known as the ‘value chain.’ Firms in each successive level progressively add value by transforming or modifying basic materials that eventually become products for final sale.
Silicones fuel economic growth in two ways: through the jobs created in the silicones industry and through the boost they give to industries that rely on silicone substances.
Silicones’ direct manufacturing and indirect manufacturing, along the value chain, are a substantial source of employment in China.
- An estimated 150,000 Professionals work in the China silicones industry.
It is estimated that up to 10 million employees may be involved in some form of economic activity that involves silicone products in Asia, whether formulating, distributing, integrating silicones into larger components, or selling products containing silicones.
In China, 67,600 tons of silicones are used each year in the production of construction materials, comprising 41% of sales volume in this sector in Asia. Since 2010, the construction sector accounts for about 9% of employment in China.
Silicone products used in construction include sealants, adhesives, and protective coatings. These silicone products help protect, strengthen, preserve, and provide aesthetic and innovative features to buildings. Silicones are used widely in construction because they:
- Bond with many materials, like concrete, glass, granite, marble, aluminum, steel, and plastics
- Are durable and resist decay caused from rough weather conditions, moisture, or sunlight
- Make buildings energy efficient by preventing humidity and hot or cold air from coming through joints and cracks when applied as sealants; contributes to the manufacture of thermal insulation
- Provide flexibility, which reduces damage from small to medium-scale earthquakes
Thanks to these unique properties, silicones are essential not only in residential and office buildings, but also in bridges, oil rigs, industrial plants, and pipelines.
Silicones used in construction materials can contribute to sustainability and energy efficiency:
- Silicone sealants can last up to 3 times longer than organic materials used in the same applications
- Applying silicone resin emulsion paints to an unprotected building façade can reduce heat loss by up to 40%
- Silicone additives or coatings can reduce uptake of water by up to 80% compared to traditional building materials. This reduces degradation and lengthens the operational lifetime of the material treated
The personal care and consumer products sector in China purchases almost 50,000 tons of silicones each year. In China, around 2.5 million jobs are supported by the personal care products industry alone.
Silicone polymers and cyclic siloxanes are used in this sector as a solvent and carrier for many products. In the personal care product sector, they are used in:
- Hair, skin and sun care products
They provide a glossy or “smooth” feel as well as other processing benefits, which include transparency, lack of taste or odor, rapid evaporation from skin, and low skin irritability.
In consumer products, silicones are used to make:
- Household polishes
- Laundry detergents
- Kitchen products
- Baby and infant products
The fact that silicone is pliable, and bacteria- and heat-resistant make it an ideal material for use in the kitchen. Silicone kitchen tool varieties are endless, with applications ranging from baking molds and oven mitts to collapsible food containers and sippy cups.
When silicones are used in the consumer product sector, they provide significant energy savings:
Silicones are used as an antifoaming agent in laundry detergents and fabric softeners, which helps reduce water and energy consumption in washing machines.
The electronics sector in China purchases almost $169 million of silicone products annually, accounting for 43% of silicone products purchased in Asia. While silicones are used in many different electronic goods, they are critical in the manufacturing of information communications technologies, a sector in which China has a large market share. Silicones are also used in semiconductors and LED lights.
Silicone sealants, adhesives, and coatings are used for circuits, connectors, capacitors, coils, transistors, and tubes in electronic devices for consumer and business applications. Silicones protect various components against heat, shock, and contaminants. This technology is critical in ensuring long-term stability and performance of increasingly small, portable, and sophisticated electronic devices we depend on, such as:
- Mobile phones
- MP3 players
- Tablet computers
- Global positioning systems
- Hearing aids
- LED lights
Silicones also contribute to energy efficiency in lighting.
- Sales of LED lighting products in China is expected to account for 70% of the total sales of the lighting industry in 2020, which can save as much as 340 billion kWh of electricity and reduce up to 306 million tons of CO2 emissions
- LED lights, which contain silicone, use 90% less energy than conventional lighting
- Use of silicones in LED devices results in lower optical losses, increased brightness and duration, and greater protection and reliability, contributing to reducing replacement, maintenance costs, and solid waste generation
Overall, silicones contribute to enhanced energy efficiency, connectivity, mobile working, and power of electronics.
The energy sector in China purchases about $612 million of silicone products annually to be used in renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines, as well as in traditional energy sources like oil and gas.
- Activities related to solar photovoltaic (PV) technology account for about 2.5 million jobs globally, with two thirds of these jobs in China
- In 2017, the installed capacity of PV power generation in China reached 130GW
- The wind energy sector employs more than 500,000 people in China
- Oil accounts for 37% of energy consumption in Asia
- More than an estimated 4 million people are employed in China in the production and supply of electricity, heat, gas, and water
Silicones are used as conductive adhesives and encapsulants in the manufacturing of solar panels. Their resistance to UV radiation and superior transparency improve panel efficiency, while their mechanical and chemical properties reduce repair costs and ensure panels last longer.
Silicones contribute to cost reductions in the solar sector, because they have:
- Low reactivity
- Temperature and weather resistance
- Neutral cure (avoids corrosive by-products)
- Adhesive quality
Silicones are also used as bonding agents and lubricants in the manufacturing of wind turbines.
- Silicones increase the durability and weather resistance of rotor blades
- By improving durability and strength and being low weight, silicones facilitate larger wind turbines with greater energy potential
- Silicone lubricants help reduce turbine maintenance costs and maximize energy efficiency
In the oil and gas industry, silicones are the most widely used antifoam agents because they:
- Allow for higher extraction rates of oil and gas, reducing water usage and increasing efficiency
- Contribute to maintaining throughput and production in wells, rigs, refineries, and in transportation of oils
- Deliver savings by preventing oil leakage and downstream equipment damage
In addition, Silicones are used as insulators in both underground cables used for transmission and distribution of electricity, and in transformers.
- Silicones extend the life of underground cables by up to 20 years, helping to avoid more expensive options such as replacement or rejuvenation
- Silicone use in transformers increase the durability of electricity transfers, and help prevent power outages
The healthcare sector in China purchases $12 million per year of silicones, which are used in a broad range of medical devices, specialized medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals. China is the largest direct employer in the pharmaceutical industry, employing 1.6 million people.
Silicones are hydrophobic, hypoallergenic, and non-reactive with most chemicals. Their chemical stability, durability, and elastic nature can make silicones ideal for use in applications involving long-term implantation in the human body. They are known for biocompatibility and biodurability, due to their inherent chemical and thermal stability, low surface tension, and ease of sterilization.
Silicones are used in hundreds of health care applications, including:
- Impression molds in dental care
- Intravenous drug and transfusion delivery systems
- Ventilation masks
- Cooling caps for chemotherapy treatments
- Ventilation bags
- Breathing tubes
- Medical adhesive applications
- Topical medications
- Anti-acid medications
Because silicones are well tolerated by the human skin and body, they help:
- Facilitate healing
- Improve the appearance of existing scars
- Reduce discomfort
- Reduce patient risk
- Enable life enhancing devices
- Contribute towards various innovations
The transportation sector in China purchases about 8,600 tons of silicone products for use in automotive, marine, and aviation applications. Silicone rubber, resin elastomers, sealants, lubricants, and plastic additives are used extensively in automotive, aviation, and marine vessels, due to their strength, adhesion, and durability.
China’s automotive industry alone employs 1.6 million people and uses silicone to make transportation more efficient, safer, and more reliable. Silicone rubber, elastomers, sealants, lubricants and plastic additives are used extensively in automotive components.
- Silicones can help provide airbags with airtight seals and fabric strength, contributing to increased safety and reductions in road fatalities by helping airbags inflate with precise timing and pressure
- Silicones can withstand exposure to high temperatures, salt, and rain, so they are used to protect and insulate engine parts which improves lifetime vehicle safety
- In new energy vehicles, silicone encapsulates the entire battery pack for stabilization, vibration protection, heat dissipation, and water and dust proofing. It is also used for bonding and positioning of power battery cells and thermal management of lithium batteries
- In 2017, the production and sales of new energy vehicles in China reached 794,000 and 777,000 units, and car ownership exceeded 1.8 million, accounting for over 50% of the global market
- The production and sales volume of China's new energy vehicles is estimated to reach 2 million by 2020
Silicones can help reduce the buildup of dirt and film and reduce attachment of marine organisms to the ship’s hull, helping to improve fuel efficiency and reducing maintenance.
Because silicones can withstand astonishing stress and temperature extremes, they are also used in many aspects of aircraft and spacecraft assembly and maintenance, including in defense modernization projects in China.
China's high-speed railway and rail transit, aviation, shipbuilding, and marine equipment sectors have entered a period of rapid development and will drive the development and application of high-performance silicone materials.