CHINA WATCHChina’s Gallium and Germanium Controls: What They Mean and What Could Happen Next

By Gavin D. J. Harper

Published 9 July 2023

From August, China is to restrict exports of gallium and germanium, two critical elements for making semiconductor chips. China dominates the supply of both elements. The restrictions look likely to lead to higher prices for gallium and germanium, as well as longer delivery times.

From August, China is to restrict exports of gallium and germanium, two critical elements for making semiconductor chips. With China dominating the supply of both elements, exporters will now need special license to get them out of the country. The move has the potential to harm a range of western tech manufacturers that use these elements to make their products.

The move is reportedly in response to western restrictions of equipment vital for making semiconductor devices (and was forewarned in an previous article in The Conversation). Above all, the US CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 curtailed exports of high-end microchips and technology to China, potentially affecting Beijing’s capacity for high-performance computing in areas such as defense. Other nations such as Japan and the Netherlands have also imposed restrictions.

So how important are the new Chinese restrictions and what are the implications likely to be?

The Importance of Gallium and Germanium
Silicon is the most widely used material in semiconductors, and is very abundant. But germanium and gallium have specific properties that are hard to replicate and lend themselves to certain niche applications. These get incorporated into countless devices such as smartphones, laptops, solar panels and medical equipment, as well as defense applications.

Both elements are also crucial to technological advancement over the next few years. Germanium is particularly useful in space technologies such as solar cells because it is more resistant to cosmic radiation than silicon. With the physical limits of silicon being approached in some technologies, increased use of germanium is mooted as a way of overcoming these limits. It is already used in small quantities in some semiconductors to improve things like electron flow and thermal conductivity.

As for gallium, 95 percent of it is used in a material called gallium arsenide, which is used in semiconductors with higher performance and lower power-consumption applications than silicon. These are used in things like blue and violet LEDs and microwave devices.

Meanwhile, gallium nitride is used in semiconductors in components for things like electric vehicles, sensors, high-end radio communications, LEDs and Blu-Ray players. Its use is expected to grow significantly.

Both gallium and germanium are on the European Union and US lists of critical elements. The UK considers gallium to be critical to its manufacturing interests, though sees germanium as less important.