European companies are exploring ways to replace the gallium and germanium supply put at risk by China’s export curbs after pressure from EU authorities, but the industry says incentives will be needed to make critical mineral production viable.
China, which processes 80% of the world’s gallium and 60% of its germanium, imposed restrictions on exports of the metals used in high-tech electronics from August, choking off shipments.
The European Commission gathered potential suppliers and buyers last week in a bid to encourage local production, people familiar with the meeting said.
Greek energy and metals group Mytilineos, present at the meeting, said it has a pilot project to assess the most cost-effective way to extract gallium that it could build to scale in 18 months.
That could produce 40-45 metric tons of the metal a year, roughly equal to current EU demand, it said. Gallium is typically a byproduct of processing bauxite into aluminum precursor alumina.
CEO Evangelos Mytilineos said a key requirement is support for its core aluminum business, which the industry says has in Europe been labouring under high energy prices and levies to come for carbon emissions.
“We are trapped by the tools selected by the EU for the green transition. We need massive affordable energy,” Mytilineos said.
“We see demand is rising. The Commission needs to provide incentives to go for it.” The company said EU-supported contracts for difference that ensure future prices could help.
European primary aluminum production fell by a third from a peak in 2008 to 2022. Smelters of zinc ore, from which germanium is a byproduct, face similar pressure from energy costs.
Belgian zinc producer Nyrstar has said it is looking into potential projects for gallium and germanium recovery in Europe, although is more advanced in its search in the US, with a $150 million project in mind.
The EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act, which will set targets for mining, recycling and processing of 17 key materials, is likely to enter force in the coming months.
The European association for non-ferrous metal producers Eurometaux said it needed to be backed by funding and measures to cut operating costs for the industry.
Eurometaux said the issue was broader than just gallium and germanium supply, and the EU needed to create conditions for future operations to be viable.
“Last year it was magnesium, last month graphite, and we don’t know what metals will be next. We in Europe need to move from reactive to proactive mode, preparing for future shocks,” it said.
(By Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Jan Harvey)