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Gallium: China tightens grip on wonder metal as Huawei works on promising applications beyond 5G

Stephen Chen and Eric Ng

Did you know that a 5G base station can be squeezed into a casing the size of a shoebox? It's thanks to gallium, a soft, bluish metal that makes it possible.

The chipsets that generate powerful bursts of high frequency radio waves are not made with silicon, but gallium nitride.

They consume little electricity, produce little heat and can function comfortably at 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), making bulky equipment for power supply and air conditioning redundant.

Gallium is one of the 35 technology-critical elements listed by the US government as a national security concern. Like rare earths, the global supply of gallium is under Chinese control.

Gallium (above) is one of the 35 elements listed by the US government as a national security concern. Photo: Alamy alt=Gallium (above) is one of the 35 elements listed by the US government as a national security concern. Photo: Alamy

China produced 390 tonnes of raw gallium last year, or more than 95 per cent of the world output, according to the United States Geological Survey.

China has become a super power in rare earth, rare metals and other dispersed elements, with increasing dominance over a wide range of sectors from ore to technology.

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has filed more than 2,000 patents related to gallium nitride, according to Google Patents. Nokia, Huawei's major competitor in the 5G race, had more than 1,500 patents, while Ericsson had just over 400 filings.

Qualcomm, a US-based company and major supplier of 5G-based chipsets, had less than 1,000 patent filings.

"As the semiconductor industry shifts from silicon to gallium, China is preparing to take the lead position," said professor Hao Xiaopeng, functional material researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Crystal Materials in Shandong University, Jinan.

SCMP Graphics alt=SCMP Graphics

Alexandra Feytis, an associate consultant at London-based industrial minerals consultancy Roskill Information Services, said although China's dominance in gallium was not yet a major source of concern for other countries as the market was adequately supplied, it was likely to change in the long term.

"While China has kept increasing its primary gallium production, most other producing countries have reduced it," she said, noting Kazakhstan had ceased production in 2013 owing to low prices, followed by Germany in 2016.

"New promising applications requiring gallium have been developed during the last few years and we see among them the widespread roll-out of 5G networks.

"Therefore, gallium will certainly become of more interest over the next few years and it remains closely monitored by Europe and by the US, which both listed it as a critical mineral," she said.

Ryan Ding, chief of Huawei's carrier business group, holds a Tiangang 5G base station chipset during a product presentation in Beijing in January. Photo: AP Photo alt=Ryan Ding, chief of Huawei's carrier business group, holds a Tiangang 5G base station chipset during a product presentation in Beijing in January. Photo: AP Photo

After a five-year decline until the end of 2016 because of oversupply, gallium prices in China started to recover in 2017. The following year global prices surged by 40 per cent, as a result of restocking by consumers.

Meanwhile, the military sector has been using gallium nitride in radars, high-power laser and spy satellites.

According to Hao, Chinese telecommunication companies such as Huawei are coming up with innovative technology to make the "wonder material" work for mass civilian applications.

5G is just the start.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.