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SRA aims for leading gallium supply role

A Tennessee zinc mine should position Canada's Strategic Resource Acquisition as the largest producer of gallium in the US, and among the world's top germanium suppliers.

Strategic Resource Acquisition (SRA), the Canadian company that recently announced plans to recover germanium and gallium from its US zinc mine, is aiming to become a leading supplier of the two metals.

Both elements are used widely in compound semiconductor applications, and with increasing demand for GaAs-based RFICs and solar cells in particular, the additional supply will be welcome news for semiconductor materials companies. Strategy Analytics latest report on the GaAs market predicts year-on-year growth of 9 per cent for the next five years (see newsfeed entry).

"Roughly 85 per cent of gallium demand is driven by III-V semiconductors," SRA told compoundsemiconductor.net. And while germanium demand is more evenly divided between the plastics industry, fiber-optics, and military applications in infrared sensing, demand from photovoltaic applications is again expected to increase rapidly (see related stories).

"At full commercial production, SRA expects to produce about 70 tonnes of gallium and germanium combined [annually], which places it among the top primary global producers," said the company.

SRA has already signed deals to sell its so-called "leachate", a residue produced by the zinc smelting process that is rich in germanium and gallium, to a Chinese customer for metal extraction.

But after carrying out a study on the financial viability of recovering the metals itself, SRA believes that it makes sense to process the leachate into metals at a purity of 99.99 percent.

"These metals are highly financially attractive at current prices," said SRA, which is aiming to have a pilot plant for the metal recovery process in place by early 2009. According to Mining and Chemical Products Limited, the price of gallium, having steadily increased to $800/kg in late 2007, has actually dropped more recently to around $600/kg - although even at the lower price it remains more valuable than at any time between early 2001 and late 2006.

The zinc ore from the Mid-Tennessee mine has long been known to contain high concentrations of gallium, but it is only relatively recently that processing methods capable of extracting the valuable metal from the leachate have been developed.

SRA also says that is has an agreement with Recapture Metals, with which it will work to increase the value of the gallium recovered.

Studies carried out by SRA suggest that it could make annual sales of $40 million on germanium and gallium extracted from the leachate at a healthy operating profit, giving it only an eighteen-month payback period on the cost of setting up the process.

That attractive financial equation means that SRA is now making long-term plans for germanium and gallium production from the zinc ore. "In the interim, SRA has arrangements to sell the germanium/gallium-rich leachate for two years at an estimated $10 million-$15 million per annum," it said.

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