top of page

How the Covid virus propelled Germanium into the limelight

Cometh the hour, cometh the metal. Like rhenium, a mere particle in its host ores and concentrates, the quantity of germanium atoms can average between 100-500 grams per metric tonne in zinc concentrates, with as little as 20 grams per mt in ore.

Scrap Germanium discs

So germanium is, by any standards, rare in nature (ranking 53rd out of 94 in abundance of naturally occurring elements). And as with other elements in the minor metal category, there are no germanium mines  – only lead and zinc mines, of which not all contain this key element. To track where germanium is produced, or how much of it might be available to the world, you have to follow the concentrates. In germanium’s case one big name in the Western world is inextricably linked with it – Teck – (the former Cominco mining house) whose smelter complex in Trail, British Columbia, has been processing lead/zinc concentrates from the 1890s.

But germanium, like other by-product metals, is not only recovered from mines, but as a by-product of processes too. In this element’s case, from the flue dusts of brown coal fired power stations. And this is not everyone’s idea of a sustainable source; a polluting process of energy production that many would hope is on the wane. And yet, were all the brown coal sources to close tomorrow, perhaps 15% of the 220 mt per year total supply (including recycling) would be lost or - put another way - over 20% of prime supply of 150 mtpy. So, as with everything else in minor metals, there are consequences, as well as consequences of consequences.

Another factor, if you want to follow the way this element arises, is to note that most is produced by capturing the germanium atoms from the leachate used for electro-winning the zinc. But not all lead/zinc concs are processed where they are mined. While much North American by-product finds its way to Trail, Bolivian lead/zinc concs are, for example, shipped to Korea Zinc, while China mostly produces germanium by-product from local ores and concs. In both cases the atoms in their residues still travel vast distances from point of generation to point of extraction. 

But the world needs germanium – and never more so than now, with uses that are required in the midst of the Covid crisis as well as the world that emerges after.

Let’s look at just some of them…

Infrared Detectors – the thermometers you don’t have to put under your tongue

The application of germanium within infrared systems (also called thermal imaging) is not new. Night vision systems large and small have been part of the kit used by the military in both aviation, tanks, and infantry since the 1980s. Some items are as small as goggles, some as large as huge 25 cm diameter cameras. What is new, is that this same technology is now likely being used not just on the battlefield but on a street near you – yes, in the CCTV cameras pointing along the high street at night as you wobble home from the pub (or used to).

Today, the same technical application, the ability for germanium to sense heatwaves and translate these into visible images, is being commandeered for use in airports, train stations, entrance lobbies to office buildings, restaurants and other public places as a weapon against the spread of coronavirus. In the last few months China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology listed infrared thermometers on a list of ‘key materials for epidemic control and prevention’. According to reports each lens (depending on its size) contains between 10g and 500g of the metal. With viruses likely to remain a part of the human landscape for a long time to come, germanium’s use in this field is expected to grow accordingly.

Data usage, lock down, and remote working

We are all remote working now – and one of the immediate consequences of this is that we are sweating the internet – and all the electronics interfacing it.

In this connection, much mention has been made about the world being on the threshold of the 5G revolution without much understanding of what it might mean – even extending to the bizarre circumstances of 5G masts being attacked in the midlands of the UK as carriers of the virus. [A good example of a physical attack upon the symbol of an imagined threat, borne out of fear and ignorance.]

In reality, 5G is a wireless system which depends on optical fibre delivering light and data efficiently along physical cables to the 5G hubs or towers. What is not well appreciated in all the huffing and puffing about 5G – and the debate about whether the Chinese state could be listening into our personal conversations – is that 5G does not substitute optical fibre but is entirely dependent on it for delivery.

The simple metaphor to be used is that of a motorway and B roads or country lanes. While the highway appears to transport you in your car to your customer at high speeds, all too often the reason you might be apologising for being late to the meeting is the congestion, traffic lights, and roadworks when you leave the motorway.

The limitation of a 5G mast is that an individual cell tower can only securely transmit signals to a radius of about 60 metres. Therefore it can only do what it is intended to do with the support of the optical fibre that delivers to the mast.

There is no doubt therefore about the value 5G will have in delivering a massive increase in bandwidth to your front door – something that is going to be critical as we all talk work over Zoom, WhatsApp and other video conferencing media.

The killer fact is that, as far as germanium is concerned, for 5G to provide the faster broadband speeds, greater bandwidth and cost effectiveness advertised, it needs to be supported by a much denser fibre optic network. That means a filigree network of more fibre optic cable to reach the hubs before the final 60 metres.

It’s those germanium bearing optical fibres, with high refractive index, creating total internal reflection within the cable, and efficiently delivering un-garbled data through the fibre, and minimising attenuation, that look as if they will underpin and drive germanium demand for the foreseeable future.

Put it this way, if 5G was previously taxiing along the runway, today lock down means it is accelerating towards take-off. For as much as 5G was designed to meet projections of network usage for tomorrow, the Covid lock down has brought those dates forward to today.

While politicians rightly wrangle about the implications of being China-dependent for 5G networks, no one is questioning its need. The issue now will be as to what safeguards can be built into the systems.

Every element has its day – but it looks as if germanium’s might just be involved with either delivering your next NT Live Theatre or, quite possibly, via a mast near you (handily disguised as a tree), your next dreary board meeting.

Three cheers for technology!

Published 29th April 2020


bottom of page