In the ever-evolving world of technology, certain chemical elements play a crucial role in enabling innovations and advancements. Two such elements are germanium and gallium, each with unique properties that make them irreplaceable in various applications.
Recognising the importance of germanium and gallium, the European Union and the United States have designated them as critical elements for mining, while the United Kingdom views gallium as vital for its manufacturing processes. This recognition reflects the understanding that silicon's limitations will eventually lead to germanium and gallium replacing it in future technologies.
According to the Critical Raw Materials Alliance (as of 2023), China produces around 60% of the world's germanium and 80% of the world's gallium, with Germany, Japan, and Ukraine being some of the other key players in the market. However, China's recent export restrictions on metals such as germanium and gallium (in response to the US CHIPS and Science Act of 2022) have impacted the manufacturing of high-end microchips and technology, creating tensions in the global technology supply chain.
What are these elements used for?
Germanium is a semiconductor material that has been instrumental in the history of electronics. While not as prevalent since the rise of silicon technology, germanium is still in use in specialised areas, such as infrared optics, solar cells, and high-speed electronic components. Its transparency to infrared light makes it invaluable in thermal imaging systems and night vision technology, often employed in military equipment.
Gallium is a soft, silvery metal that holds a prominent position in the semiconductor industry. Gallium-based compounds like gallium arsenide and gallium nitride possess superior electronic properties, making them vital in manufacturing high-frequency and high-power electronic devices, including LEDs, lasers, and transistors. Moreover, gallium arsenide is widely used in high-efficiency solar cells, offering advantages in space applications and concentrated photovoltaics.
While silicon remains the primary material for semiconductors and is abundant on Earth, germanium and gallium's unique properties make them indispensable in specific applications. These applications are ubiquitous in the technology we use every day, from smartphones and laptops to advanced space technologies.
As the geopolitical landscape continues to influence the technology industry, ensuring sustainable mining practices and a diverse supply chain for germanium and gallium becomes increasingly important. International collaboration, investment in research and development, and exploration of alternative sources are crucial steps in securing these essential elements for future technological advancements. Highlighting their importance in various industries and advocating responsible sourcing will help navigate the challenges posed by export restrictions and supply chain vulnerabilities, enabling the continued progress and innovation in our interconnected world.