A solution to potential shortages of two critical minerals used in making semiconductors and advanced military equipment — exports of which were restricted by China this month — may be lying in some waste storage ponds in central Tennessee.
Owners of a zinc processing facility in the southern U.S. state say they are developing a plan to extract the two minerals — gallium and germanium — from the ponds where for years the company has deposited the residue from its refining of zinc from five mines located in central and eastern Tennessee.
Now the company — Netherlands-headquartered Nyrstar — is looking for ways to finance the project. Industry experts say the United States should be willing to pay the price to develop a guaranteed source of the minerals, which are deemed critical for the manufacture of the tiny chips that control electronic devices ranging from smart bombs to refrigerators.
Beijing announced last month that it was imposing export controls on the two minerals effective Aug. 1 in what was seen as retaliation for U.S. export controls on finished computer chips that China could use in the manufacture of high-tech weapons.
While Western chipmakers say they have ample supplies of the two minerals in the short term, Beijing’s action has prompted a scramble to secure new sources. China currently accounts for 98% of the gallium used worldwide in chipmaking and about 60% of refined germanium.
While the minerals can be obtained in other countries, aggressive Chinese pricing has effectively put everyone else out of business, according to Christopher Ecclestone, a London-based minerals and commodities strategist interviewed by VOA.
“The reason why the Chinese ended up with dominance in these metals is because they’ve been prepared to produce and sell these metals at knock-down prices, sometimes at a loss, to make sure that nobody else produces them,” he said.
“This is all part of their strategic thinking that ‘we’ve got it and other people don’t have it, so we’re potentially in control.'”
The United States has not produced primary (low-purity, unrefined) gallium since 1987 and has none in its government stockpile.
“The remaining producers outside of China most likely restricted output owing to China’s dominant production capacity,” a U.S. Geological Survey report on critical minerals stated.
The picture is a little less extreme with germanium, with Canadian mining conglomerate Teck Resources providing about one-third of the world’s supply, Ecclestone said.
Enter the Clarksville, Tennessee-based zinc refinery with its plan to extract the two minerals from residue in its waste storage ponds, where they have been sitting as natural byproducts of the zinc-refining process. Existing stocks would be augmented with residue from future zinc processing at a new $150 million state-of-the-art facility.
“Both germanium and gallium are by-product metals,” Ecclestone explained. “There’s no gallium mine out there.” Rather, he said, gallium is a byproduct of bauxite smelting and zinc smelting. Germanium, similarly, is derived from the process of zinc smelting and also resides in the fly ash of coal production.
Other efforts to extract the minerals are also underway. The Pentagon has initiated a program to recycle germanium from decommissioned military equipment that could be used in night-vision, thermal-sensing devices and other products, according to information released by the U.S. government.
Windows of decommissioned tanks and other military vehicles are also said to be a reliable source of germanium. Altogether the Pentagon programs are expected to produce up to 3 metric tons per year of high-purity germanium ingot.
But that is dwarfed by Nyrstar’s plans, first reported in Tennessee media, which call for the production of up to 30 tons of germanium and 40 tons of gallium a year. That would make up for much of the 43.7 tons of germanium that China exported in 2022 and its 94 tons of gallium.
The company says it is exploring funding opportunities from federal and state governments as well as private U.S. sources. Company officials are hopeful that funding will be in place in the next few months and that construction can begin soon afterward.
Colorado-based mineral economist David Hammond told VOA he thinks the company’s timeline for the construction’s completion of two to two and a half years is realistic and, like Ecclestone, he believes the United States should be willing to shoulder the added cost of establishing domestic sources for critical minerals such as gallium and germanium.
“Over the last 30 years, China has managed to outstrip the U.S. in critical minerals supply chain and related technical expertise,” he said. “We’re only recently beginning to rebuild what we need.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the zinc refinery. It is in Clarksville, Tennessee.