Demand for gallium, produced mainly as a by-product of zinc and bauxite ores, is expected to continue to grow during the next few years, driven by new applications such as fifth generation (5G) smartphones, wireless, and solar cells, and by the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are replacing incandescent and fluorescent lamps in lighting applications.
Production-wise, the market is adequately supplied and expected to remain so, with an estimated production of over 400t primary gallium in 2018, up by nearly 100t compared to 2017. Global output of primary gallium rose strongly between 2009 and 2015. In 2016, it fell as producers outside of China, including Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Ukraine, restricted their output owing to a large surplus of gallium. That year, Germany ceased production.
During the last decade, China has remained the leading producer for primary gallium, accounting for more than 80% of worldwide low-grade capacity. Chinese gallium output surged by over 30% y-on-y in 2018. Between 2010 and 2013, the country’s capacity for production of primary gallium had tripled in expectation of growing demand for GaN LEDs for backlighting of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels used in tablet computers, mobile phones and TVs. At the time, while there was considerable growth in demand from this sector, the supply of gallium far outgrew requirements.
Demand for gallium has rapidly increased since 2014 as general lighting moved away from incandescent and fluorescent lamps to LEDs. General lighting is expected to remain a substantial sector for LEDs until the worldwide conversion to LEDs is complete.
A growing demand in all sectors for semiconductor (SC) and semi-insulator (SI) properties, which represents about 90% of gallium consumption, will lead to higher growth rates in the coming years. Most gallium is used as gallium arsenide (GaAs) or gallium nitride (GaN) devices.
Sectors in the gallium arsenide (GaAs) industry are expected to remain the largest end use market until 2025. Meanwhile, global gallium nitride (GaN) power device market is expected to grow by almost 30% in terms of value between 2017 and 2023.
Between 2014 and 2017, GaAs device demand increased from US$6.25bn to US$8.8bn. Consumption was boosted by growing wireless infrastructure in Asia coupled with the development of third (3G) and fourth (4G) generation smartphones and the use of military radar and communications applications.
5G is expected to be the next big catalyst for radio-frequency (RF) GaN and should increase the size of market threefold by 2023 compared to 2017.
The use of GaN components over silicon could represent significant opportunities in the future as silicon has reached its limits in solving critical power systems challenges. It is anticipated that GaN technology could help address the demand for energy efficient technologies.
After a five-year decline until the end of 2016 due to oversupply, gallium prices in China started to recover in 2017, with a 40% increase in 2018, as a result of restocking by consumers. In Europe, prices dropped at the end of 2018 owing to oversupply. The market, steady but still oversupplied, is likely to keep prices low in the short term, but longer-term prices may move higher in response to strong market demand.