Discovered in 1875 by Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran in Paris, France, it is found in traces in Zn and Al minerals and in germanite (0.7% Ga).
The element is obtained by electrolysis of Ga salts. It dissolves in acids and alkalis and becomes coated with a thin oxide layer on heating in air.
Gallium has semiconductor properties as GaAs, and can be used as light emitting diodes and electrical devices.
Relative Atomic Mass
The Gallium industry depends to some extent on the Alumina industry as it is a by-product of the processing of Bauxite into Alumina.
Gallium is the only non-toxic metal that you can melt in your hand, and with its application in a huge range of modern electrical appliances, you’d be hard pressed to find a household that does not contain any.
As with many electronic metals, such as Indium and Germanium, Gallium production is dominated by China, which produces over 95% of the 220mt of total global production of high purity refined Gallium. Gallium metal is a by-product of alumina production from bauxite, and so prices in recent years have swung steeply up and down as a consequence of the Chinese government’s environmental restrictions on the aluminium sector.
Around 95% of global Gallium production is made into Gallium Arsenide, a compound which has high electrical conductivity, and can produce laser light directly from electricity. Its applications include LEDs, solar panels, semiconductors, microwave and infrared circuits, optical windows, optoelectronics, laser diodes and 4G & 5G base stations, just to name a few.
Most of the remaining Gallium produced goes to the production of Gallium Nitride, which is used as semiconductors for a range of devices, such as mobile phones, transistors in flexible smart grids for renewable energy like solar and wind, RF (radio frequency) devices for wireless communication in consumer electronics and defense sectors, sensor and scanning technologies integral to healthcare, transport and manufacturing, and satellite communications.
Gallium nitride semiconductors have enhanced material properties compared to silicon semiconductors, and can operate at higher efficiencies with lower power consumption, with wider bandwidth and greater frequency, as well as enhanced performance reliability. Therefore, as we transition to highly interconnected, data-dense 5G as well as Industry 4.0 which make greater material demands, GaN semiconductors are expected to increasingly replace silicon semiconductors.
The addition of Gallium in permanent rare earth magnets also improves their magnetic properties, of which the biggest growing application is in electric vehicle motors. Another small but growing application of Gallium in the ‘green’ sector is in CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) thin-film solar photovoltaics (PV).
While Covid-19 dampened demand for Gallium from the electronics sector and delayed the roll out of 5G, the frustrations of millions working from home competing for internet bandwidth with neighbours and family members has keenly highlighted the necessity for better reliability of wireless communications, and greater bandwidth. As the global economy recovers in the next few years, we expect global Gallium demand to grow in tandem.