Often overlooked by the highly coveted rare earth elements (REEs), gallium is also a chemical element which possesses several unique characteristics and is a significant contributor to the demands of the green energy transition.
The silver metal is considered a critical mineral by the European Union (EU) and has been since 2011 when the EU first established a list of critical raw materials. Yet gallium, whose economic importance to the EU is significantly high, has not attracted attention from the mainstream investment community.
Currently, gallium is used as a non-toxic alternative to mercury in thermometers, to make alloys which have low melting points, and in semiconductor manufacturing. Gallium-nitride semiconductors produce violet and blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and lasers, and gallium arsenide is used as a direct band-gap semiconductor in feature-rich, application-intensive, third and fourth generation smartphones as well as in data-centric networks.
Recent research has also shown that gallium nitride (GaN) technology aims to replace silicon and boost electric vehicle (EV) performance while cutting costs. GaN power transistors are being brought into greater focus due to their large power-handling capabilities, high-switching frequencies, and higher voltage capabilities.
GaN semiconductors have 1,000 times more electron mobility – flowing faster – than silicon. This provides improved thermal-management conditions, resulting in smaller and lower-cost system cooling options.
GaN-based inverters deliver efficiency improvements of more than 70% compared to today’s inverters using traditional IGBT (insulated-gate bipolar transistor) semiconductors that are the current EV and hybrid vehicle control workhorses. In an EV, they help deliver greater driving range and more package efficiency by creating an accrued increase in efficiency and reductions in size and weight of onboard chargers (OBCs), traction inverters, and DC/DC systems.
Until 1 August 2023, China was ostensibly the sole supplier of gallium to the semiconductor industry, producing a staggering 98% of the world’s supply. The mega-country has now imposed stricter controls on the materials export. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce stated that exporters of gallium will need to apply for “special permission from the state” to ship them out of the country. This move is believed to be a reaction to the ban on shipping advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment into China on national security grounds. This restriction has raised concerns over the rise of so-called “resource nationalism” – when governments hoard critical materials to exert influence over other countries.
Primary low-purity (99.99%-pure) gallium prices in China averaged US$510/kg in June 2022, an increase of 34% from US$380/kg in January of the same year. This was following a 36% increase in that also happened in 2021, from US$275/kg in January of that year to US$375/kg in December.
The increases in China’s gallium prices resulted from several issues. Environmental restrictions placed on Chinese bauxite production in 2019 compelled the country’s alumina refineries to import bauxite with lower gallium content from abroad, which increased gallium extraction costs. When the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic reduced gallium demand in early to mid-2020, Chinese gallium producers slowed or shut down operations.
Chinese gallium supply was scarce when gallium demand recovered in the second half of 2020, owing increasingly to gallium consumption in 5G telecommunications networks and neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets in Chinese EVs. Gallium prices increased significantly in the last quarter of 2020, continuing through June 2022.
However, some experts believe that the Western world will find alternative supplies, and this ban will cause only a several-year blip. The changing supply dynamics for gallium and other critical metals are most likely to benefit companies mining the critical element, one such example being Terrain Minerals (ASX: TMX).
Terrain Minerals, an Australian company who first discovered gallium on its property in August 2023, has seen much interest in the months that have followed. As the globe sees more direct industry investment in developing new gallium mines and production facilities (most likely located in political stable jurisdictions) with government assistance to fast-track projects forward, companies like Terrain will see much increased input into this blooming sector.
In its recent press release, Terrain states it is of the opinion that over the coming 12 months, economies like the US and the EU will start to actively engage directly with resource companies active within the gallium (and germanium) sector and, as such, the company has commenced routinely assaying for these evolving critical metals as part of its standard exploration activities.
Current projections suggest that the demand for gallium going forward will require more than a tenfold increase in primary production by 2050, with companies like Terrain undertaking detailed analysis of gallium mineralization and its market.
“This little known, non-LME traded, metal called gallium look(s) set for substantial growth in 2024 and beyond. Growth is being driven by multiple factors, that include the continued demands coming from technological advancements in electronics that strive for faster and lower voltage computer chip, semi-conductors, transistors, (with gallium being the critical element),” said Terrain executive director, Justin Virgin.
“Apart from electronics growth in the military and commercial sector, another driving development in gallium’s demand has been from a recent patent expiry involving technology in the manufacturing process of photovoltaic panels. The patent stopped panel manufactures using the gallium doping process, forcing them to use steel as a substitute, which internally corrodes inside the silicon cell. This has resulted in 50% of Chinese solar panels now using gallium in solar panels, giving them superior performance and longer life spans.”
Source: The Assay