China chokes exports of semiconductor secret sauces gallium and germanium

Don't panic but beware the blowback effect

China is imposing export restrictions on two elements used in semiconductors and other electronic components, a move likely to be viewed as a calculated response to Western restrictions on sales of chips and their production tech to the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce released a statement announcing that Beijing has decided to implement export controls on gallium and germanium, as well as some compounds containing these elements, such as indium gallium arsenide, phosphorus germanium zinc, and silicon chip building tech Ge epitaxial growth substrate.

This means that anyone wishing to export these materials, from China will first have to submit an application to the Ministry of Commerce and obtain permission to do so. This is necessary "in order to safeguard national security and interests," the statement said. These measures are set to come into force as of August 1.

Gallium and germanium are both materials for which China is the largest global source. For example, China is said to be responsible for around 60 percent of the world's germanium, according to the Critical Raw Materials Alliance, with the remainder coming from Canada, Finland, Russia and the United States.

The situation is even worse for gallium, with 80 percent of this coming from China, while gallium arsenide – the second most common semiconductor in use today – is only produced at the requisite quality by a few companies in the world, just one of which is in Europe.

Applications of germanium include fiber-optic systems, infrared optics, solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), while those of gallium are said to include microwave and high-speed switching circuits.

Gartner vice president analyst in its Emerging Technologies & Trends unit, Alan Priestly, commented: "Both elements are used in various types of transistor – GaN used in most modern high power converters (from small power bricks for phones to EV chargers), germanium in a wide range of analog applications – comms, signalling, sensing etc.

"This doesn't impact manufacture of high perf digital logic (CPUs etc) but it affects a lot of the peripheral components needed to use digital chips."

It is possible this may be a retaliation by Beijing for the blocks put on technology exports to Chinese companies by the US and its partners to restrict advanced chip processing tech. Well, possible, but pretty likely.

Just last week, Washington was believed to be considering further restrictions on the export to China of advanced chips used for AI processing, while export licenses are already required for any technology that is used in the design or manufacture of advanced semiconductors.

China has already hit back by blacklisting US memory chipmaker Micron as a security risk and barred operators of critical information infrastructure in its own country from purchasing products containing the Idaho technology.

However, IDC's Senior Research Director for Europe, Andrew Buss, said he did not believe this would lead to an immediate shortage of these key elements, and was possibly China playing the long game and securing its own supplies for future use.

"There is no major global shortage of gallium or germanium, and both are quite widely produced in a multitude of countries and regions, so there is unlikely to be a major external impact of this outside China, but it could well be a strategy to ensure China has enough internal supplies for its own growth ambitions for semiconductor or technology manufacturing," Buss said.

And while there is some risk, constricting the global supply would simply make it more economically attractive to mine these elements elsewhere, he argued.

"For germanium there is more supply risk as production has recently concentrated in China and Russia to some degree, but cost economics would likely lead to industrial production in other regions as the element is not particularly rare or scarce, nor is production technologically challenging."

However, it is likely to concentrate the minds of politicians and industry executives even more on the importance of the entire supply chain for semiconductors, and not just the end products.

The US and the EU were earlier this year reported to be considering the formation of a "critical minerals club" with the goal of diversifying supplies of critical minerals and finding ways to reduce reliance on countries such as China. ®

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