Tech Insights

Discussing the Impact of Chinese Restrictions on Semiconductor Metals

September 15, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Chinese restriction of germanium and gallium exports could have big implications for the global electronics industry. 

The semiconductor industry is truly a disaggregated and global effort. Between the research and development of devices, the sourcing of materials, and the physical manufacturing of products, every country plays a vital role.

 

Essential battery metals and minerals

Essential battery metals and minerals. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock

 

It's for this reason the industry was put on high alert when China recently announced the restriction of gallium and germanium, two vital materials in the electronics industry. This article examines the importance of these two materials and the implications of China’s new restrictions. 

 

Gallium for Semiconductors

Gallium is most notably used in creating gallium arsenide (GaAs) and gallium nitride (GaN) compounds, both of which are extremely important in semiconductor devices.

 

GaN and GaAs are both high-performing semiconductor materials.

GaN and GaAs are both high-performing semiconductor materials. Image used courtesy of Northwest Engineering Solutions

 

In the realm of transistors, gallium’s properties offer advantages over traditional silicon-based components. Gallium-based transistors are known for their high electron mobility, allowing faster switching speeds and, consequently, more efficient performance. This is especially crucial in high-frequency applications like RF communication and high-power electronics.

Moreover, the material’s thermal stability ensures that these transistors can operate efficiently even under extreme conditions, making them ideal for aerospace and military applications.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are another domain where gallium shows its prowess. Gallium-based LEDs are highly efficient and can produce light in various colors, including the elusive blue spectrum, the discovery of which was a significant breakthrough in LED technology

 

Germanium for Semiconductors

Germanium has long held a pivotal role in developing and advancing semiconductor technology. Initially, it was the material of choice for the first transistors before silicon largely supplanted it. However, germanium has resurged in specialized applications where its unique properties offer advantages over silicon. 

Most notably, germanium has found value in optoelectronics, where it is widely used in manufacturing optical communication and solar cells. For solar capture, germanium primarily serves as the substrate material for multi-junction solar cells. For fiber optic communication systems, germanium photodetectors are commonly used to convert optical signals back into electrical signals with high efficiency and minimal signal loss. This is crucial for maintaining the integrity of data transmission over long distances.

 

Solar cells, modules, and arrays make up a PV system

Solar cells, modules, and arrays make up a PV system. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock

 

Another fascinating application of germanium is in infrared technologies. Germanium's transparency in the infrared spectrum makes it an ideal material for infrared lenses and sensors. These are extensively used in thermal imaging systems, night vision devices, and various medical applications like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), where germanium is a contrast agent. 

 

Impact of Semiconductor Material Restrictions 

The recent move by China to restrict the export of germanium and gallium could have far-reaching implications for the global technology sector. 

China provides a significant portion of these critical elements globally – around 60% for germanium and 80% for gallium. According to government figures, the US received $5M in gallium metal, $220M in gallium arsenide, and $60M of germanium in 2022. Europe is said to have an important $130M worth of germanium in 2022. Hence, China’s restrictions represent a huge limitation on the global supply of these materials and could result in undersupply and increased costs throughout the supply chain. 

In the context of the ongoing global semiconductor shortage, this move from China just adds another layer of complexity to an already strained supply chain. Moreover, the geopolitical undertones of this move, seemingly in retaliation to export restrictions imposed on China, could escalate trade tensions and lead to a more fragmented global tech landscape.