Gallium getting rarer

Tom James @ 02-07-2008

Here are some interesting musings from SF grandee Robert Silverburg at Asimov’s Science Fiction on the possibility of certain rare earths running out, as well as the mineworthy science fictional material therein.

Metals (technically “poor metals”) like gallium are used as doping agents in semiconductors used in integrated circuits and LEDs and as such are in great demand – but German prof Armin Reller suggests we may be in danger of gallium, and fellow rare-earth indium, running out.

As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use.

How very, very depressing. Still, I have every confidence in human ingenuity to discover a solution to this kind of problem.

[story via Slashdot]

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2 Responses to “Gallium getting rarer”

  1. Brian Carnell says:

    I’m not sure its that depressing in light of this,

    “Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, and his colleagues are among the few groups who have been investigating the problem. He estimates that we have, at best, 10 years before we run out of indium. Its impending scarcity could already be reflected in its price: in January 2003 the metal sold for around $60 per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram.”

    So that will result in either a) companies finding new ways to find Indium or b) manufacturers that use it finding an alternative. At some point it also becomes cost effective to find ways to recover the element from products that have reached their end of life — which has happened with Indim where the annual tonnage from recycling > annual tonnage from mining.

    Wikipedia entry on Indium notes,

    “Based on content of indium in zinc ore stocks, there is a world-wide reserve base of approximately 6,000 tonnes of economically-viable indium [7]. This figure has led to estimates suggesting that, at current consumption rates, there is only 13 years’ supply of indium left [8]. However, such estimates are often regarded as alarmist and scaremongering [9]. The Indium Corporation, the largest processor of indium, claims that, on the basis of increasing recovery yields during extraction, recovery from a wider range of base metals (including tin, copper and other polymetallic deposits) and new mining investments, the long-term supply of indium is sustainable, reliable and sufficient to meet increasing future demands [10]. This conclusion also seems reasonable in light of the fact that silver, a less abundant element, is currently mined at approximately 18,300 tonnes per annum [11], which is 40 times greater than current indium mining rates.”

  2. Michael says:

    Time to fire up the ol’ asteroid miner, I guess.