Overview -- Germanium is a hard, brittle semimetal that first came into use a half-century ago as a semiconductor material in radar units and as the material from which the first transistor was made. Today it is used principally as a component of the glass in telecommunications fiber optics; as a polymerization catalyst for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a commercially important plastic; in infrared (IR) night vision devices; and as a semiconductor and substrate in electronics circuitry.
Most germanium is recovered as a byproduct of zinc smelting, although it also has been recovered at some copper smelters and from the fly ash of coal-burning industrial powerplants. It is a highly dispersed element, associated primarily with base-metal sulfide ores. In the United States, germanium is recovered from zinc smelter residues and manufacturing scrap and is refined by two companies at four germanium refineries. One of the four refineries is dedicated to processing scrap. In 2000, producers sold zone-refined (high-purity) germanium at about $1,250 per kilogram and electronic-grade germanium dioxide (GeO2) at $800 per kilogram. Domestic refined production was valued at $22 million.
Germanium is a critical component in highly technical devices and processes. It is likely to remain in demand in the future at levels at least as high as those of 2000. U.S. resources of germanium are probably adequate to meet domestic needs for several decades.