Germanium and gallium are essential ingredients in silicon chips that drive technologies such as 5G, radio frequency, radar signals, and plastics. According to US company Wafer World, the strategic materials are also used in high-speed circuits in defense systems such as night-vision devices and satellite imaging sensors.
These minerals have a unique quality that makes them ideal for semiconductors, allowing electrical current to flow through them when heated up or exposed to light. Silicon is the most common semiconductor, but gallium arsenide — which offers a transistor rate five times faster than silicon — is increasingly being used for high-speed circuits.
Germanium is a rare element that ranks near the fiftieth position in relative abundance among the elements in the Earth’s crust. It is found in tiny amounts in various metal-bearing ores and minerals, including sphalerite (the primary ore of zinc) and argyrodite. It is a solid at room temperature with a melting point of 2554 C.
The bulk of the world’s germanium is produced as a by-product of zinc production, primarily from sphalerite and scheelite. This means that any restrictions imposed on zinc exports would have the added effect of reducing the amount of germanium available for mining. China produces around 60% of the world’s germanium, with the rest coming from Canada, Finland, Russia, and the United States.
While China may have a large share of the global supply, there is potential for alternative sources of both germanium and gallium to be developed in other parts of the world. The European association Critical Raw Materials Alliance has identified bauxite, sulphidic zinc ores, and coal as potentially significant new sources of the two elements. By-product availability curves have shown that the potential for increasing primary gallium production from bauxite and sulphidic zinc ores is more than three times that of the current total. Similarly, coal can provide an additional germanium source with an equivalent quantity to current primary production.
However, these potential sources still need to be commercially viable. That could change as demand for both germanium and gallium increases, particularly in high-speed chip applications such as 5G. That could prompt more companies to invest in these alternative sources of the elements, which are currently mainly produced in China. So, although any restriction on exports of these minerals from China could impact the global market, it is unlikely to cause significant disruption. That said, the move will focus the minds of politicians and business leaders even more on the need to diversify supplies and make supply chains resilient. Prabhu Ram, head of industry intelligence at CyberMedia Research, anticipates that there will be limited global disruption in the aftermath of China’s ban.