China produces more than 95% of the world’s raw gallium, a soft, bluish metal used in making chipsets for generating high frequency radio waves in 5G base stations.
Gallium is also one of 35 elements that the U.S. government calls a national security concern. With China so heavily in control, there are growing questions about how U.S.-based chip makers will gain access to the metal in coming years.
“As the semiconductor industry shifts from silicon to gallium, China is preparing to take the lead position,” said professor Hao Xiaopeng, a functional material researcher at State Key Laboratory of Crystal Materials in Shandong University, Jinan, China, in a recent article in the South China Morning Post.
The article, “Gallium: China tightens grip on wonder metal as Huawei works on promising applications beyond 5G” doesn’t describe any immediate threat to U.S. chipmakers. However, it does lay out facts that show both China and chipmaker Huawei could dominate in products made with gallium-based chips in years to come. Against the backdrop of trade negotiations over tariffs and blacklists between China and the U.S., the question of raw material supplies could become more critical.
Gallium nitride chips are energy-efficient and produce little heat and are used in making chipsets for 5G base stations. They can function at 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit, which means 5G base stations don’t need as much power or air conditioning as with silicon.
The article notes that Huawei, based in Shenzhen, China, has filed for 2,000 patents related to gallium nitride, ahead of other companies. Nokia has filed 1,500 patents, Nokia had more than 400 patent filings and U.S.-based Qualcomm had fewer than 1,000 patent filings.
As China has kept up its primary gallium production, most other countries have reduced production, such as Kazakhstan and Germany, said consultant Alexandra Feytis at Roskill Information Services in London. She said China’s dominance is not yet a major source of concern, but that could change in the long term.
“Gallium will certainly become of more interest over the next few years, and it remains closely monitored by Europe and by the U.S., which both list is as a critical mineral,” she told the publication.
In addition to its use in 5G base station chipsets, gallium nitride is used in military radar, lasers and satellites.