Gallium

Outlook to 2030, 11th Edition

Gallium melts in your mouth

No, really, it does. Gallium has the longest liquid phase of any element and melts at about 30֯C before turning to gas at around 2,400֯C. A piece of gallium metal would melt in your mouth, or even your hand, and it’s not toxic so it makes quite a neat party trick. Gallium is also a key ingredient in many electronic applications and is considered a critical metal.

The market for gallium is not large in tonnage terms, amounting to only a few hundred tonnes a year. It is used in purities up to 8N, mostly for integrated circuits and optoelectronics, such as LEDs. There are numerous minor uses, such as biomedical, radiopharmaceuticals, neutrino detection and gallium-plutonium alloy for military use.

Gallium is not particularly rare and has a crustal abundance similar to that of lead, cobalt and niobium. It does not occur in the free state and minerals with a high gallium content are not currently economic to mine. There are no gallium-focused mines. Global supply of gallium is from the processing of the aluminium ore bauxite to alumina and, to a much lesser extent, zinc ore. These constitute a huge gallium resource. Only a few alumina refineries recover the gallium. Most of them are in China. As a result, an estimated 97% of the world’s primary gallium supply in 2019 came from China, with the CIS accounting for the bulk of the rest. Not surprisingly, gallium is regarded by the USA, EU and others as critical (economic importance and supply risk). It currently appears to be viewed as medium-critical. Roskill considers it quite possible that a higher ranking will be adopted in future.

The COVID-19 pandemic will provide a boost to demand for gallium. Although the pandemic has had a short-term effect on the roll-out of 5G, it has also clearly demonstrated that remote working, remote healthcare, remote defence and even remote shopping are here to stay and likely to spread exponentially. The need for greater bandwidth and faster networks has never been so clear. Several minor metals, including gallium, are critical to this development, which is going to be rapid.

Devices produced with gallium arsenide substrates are widely used in wireless communication applications and in 4G and 5G base stations. Gallium nitride, which works faster at higher frequencies, is likely to feature in 5G base stations and mobile devices and could replace silicon-based technologies. The final decisions on which technology to use have not yet been taken but gallium is going to be needed regardless.

In common with other minor metals, the gallium market offers the opportunity to make or lose considerable amounts of money very quickly. From mid-2000 to Q1 2001, gallium metal spot prices shot from US$500-600/kg to as much as US$2,300/kg on the back of supply concerns that proved groundless. By H2 2001, all the gains had been lost. This mirrors what happened in the tantalum market. If proof were needed that some people really do not learn from their mistakes, history repeated itself. Twice.

Roskill experts will answer your questions…

  • What is the outlook for gallium prices?
  • How fast is 5G going to roll out?
  • What will be the impact on demand for gallium?
  • Will attention turn to installing gallium refining capacity outside China?

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