Paul van Gerven
5 July

The Chinese government has issued export restrictions for gallium and germanium, as well as compounds that contain these elements. The announcement of the curbs comes days after the publication of export control measures by the Dutch government, requiring ASML and ASM to apply for a license to ship certain tools. Starting 1 August, Chinese suppliers of gallium and germanium will be subject to similar licensing requirements.

Gallium is currently predominantly used to make gallium arsenide (GaAs), a compound semiconductor used as a substrate in RF, microwave and high-speed digital circuits, among other applications. It’s also widely found in optoelectronic devices such as lasers, LEDs and solar cells. Another popular destination for gallium is gallium nitride, which shares many of GaAs’s applications in addition to gaining traction as a power semiconductor.

Gallium is irreplaceable in many (opto)electronic applications. Credit: Wikimedia/foobar

Major end-uses for germanium include (fiber) optics, infrared technologies and electronics. Alloyed with silicon, SiGe circuits offer the high-speed, high-frequency performance that’s appreciated in RF applications. SiGe also enables integrating analog, RF and digital functions on a single IC.

Although both metals aren’t rare, China currently controls a large share of their production and refining capacity: over 90 percent for gallium and about 70 percent for germanium, according to the US Geological Survey. That’s why experts fear the curbs will disrupt multiple high-tech industries. On the other hand, the resulting price increases will provide incentives for non-Chinese companies to start or expand mining and refining operations of the materials. This is what happened when China briefly squeezed the supply of rare earth metals over a decade ago.

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It’s the second time China has hit back at Western export restrictions. In May, Beijing banned domestic IT operators from buying chips from US memory maker Micron.