Mining AND Refining Capacity Make a Difference: The case of Gallium and Germanium

In the past week, there has been a bit of a stir because of China’s announcement that it will be restricting gallium (Ga) and germanium (Ge) exports starting August 1, 2023. These two elements are important for manufacturing chips, optical devices, and more. Various news outlets (e.g., CNN and Reuters) have provided the usual coverage you would expect and as a mining professor, people ask you about these things. I decided to take a look at the USGS Commodity Summaries (by the way this is the best source of data on mineral supply chains anywhere in the world – and it is free!) to refresh my own memory of the situation the US faces relative to these elements. What struck me is the potential to increase domestic production because we have some mining and refining capacity. This is a point my colleagues and I at the Thomas J. O’Keefe Institute for Sustainable Supply of Strategic Minerals have been making for a while now.

The table below summarizes what I want to highlight from the USGS data (you can read the detailed reports on each commodity in the report).

Mine productionNoYes (in zinc concentrates in AL and TN)
Refinery production – primaryNoneNone
Refinery production – secondaryNoneYes
Estimated US consumption18,000 kg30,000 kg
Net import reliance100%>50%
Import sourcesChina (53%), Germany (13%), Japan (13%), Ukraine (5%), and others (16%)China (54%), Belgium (27%), Germany (9%), Russia (8%), and others (2%)
Based on data from USGS Commodities Summaries 2023

Obviously, the problem is that we are very dependent on imports for both elements, and we rely particularly on China for both elements (53% of 100% for Ga and 54% of 50% for Ge). While, according to USGS, we’ve not had any domestic production of Ga since 1987, we have some production capacity. We have mines in Alaska and Tennessee that are producing concentrates that are rich in Ge and the mines and plants in TN produce Ge leach concentrates. My colleague Dr. Michael Moats at Missouri University of Science and Technology is conducting research to recover Ga and Ge (as well as indium) from Zn residues from steel wastes. In fact, Nyrstar has announced that they are building a $90 million plant to process Ga and Ge in TN.

The point I want to make is this: domestic mining AND refining capacity matter. One of the issues with our over-emphasis on rare earth elements whenever we talk about critical minerals is that we ignore the real opportunities that exist in recovering more of the critical minerals we are producing or can produce as by-products of base-metal mining and processing. We can extract more tellurium from copper mining and Ge from zinc mining. However, mining capacity alone is not enough. Without refineries and smelters, the mines we build will ship their concentrate abroad (probably to China) for recovery. This will just end us back in the same situation. What we need is the ability to build mines and refineries (and in the cases where we already have refineries and smelters, enhance them to recover critical minerals) that produce finished products (i.e., onshore or friendshore the entire supply chain).

To do this, mining companies need to be able to obtain permits to build mines and refineries. As a society, we’ve for too long assumed that someone else will do the things we don’t want to do and send us the “clean finished product”. The rest of the world is starting to tire of playing this game (China now but Indonesia for example has been trying to do the same for a while now). The other issue is that there are real market forces that make some mines unwilling to take product all the way to finished metal (i.e., selling concentrates can be less risky than attempting to refine and sell metal). Government policy ought to level the playing field for these companies. When it comes to technology and R&D, mining schools like Missouri S&T are ready to do the research to support the industry. But the policy and regulatory part is out of our hands.

Let me know what you think.

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