Feature stories | Industry, manufacturing | Technology & innovation

New Tula germanium effort may tip global market scales

14 Dec '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Germanium and Applications and Russia’s Rusnano have pooled efforts in a $72m germanium-based production project outside Tula to supply hi-tech sectors from FOCLs and nanowires to aerospace engineering both within and beyond Russia. In addition to domestic impact the project may have traceable international implications, carving out a stronger presence for the Russian producer in the China-dominated and steadily recovering global market.

A Moscow-based maker of hi-tech electronics and optics components, Germanium and Applications, is pushing its new $72m germanium-based production project in Novomoskovsk, Tula region.

One of the project’s main backers is Russia’s largest nanotech firm, Rusnano, kicking in a reported $26m and providing institutional support for Germanium and Applications’ broader effort aimed at making semiconductor germanium containing products.

Between now and 2013 the project owner will focus on churning out three-to-four tons of germanium blanks a year for customers from the infrared optics, solar energy, nanoelectronics, medical and some other sectors.

Plans are to boost capacity to six tons and extend the product line later with the introduction of innovative germanium optical windows, lenses, prisms, and some other items currently unavailable from Russian industry.

The project’s overall goal is to create a full manufacturing cycle from producing and concentrating raw germanium-containing material to making value-added chemical products and components.

Once hard-hit by the most recent financial crisis, global demand for germanium has been gaining momentum and within the next four years is expected to reach some 126 tons.

The players

Germanium and Applications is one of Russia’s prime producers and exporters of germanium and its blanks for optics and electronics.

The company’s unique source of raw material is its Primorsky asset in Russia’s Far East—a coal deposit with one of the world’s largest contents of germanium. The firm produces germanium-containing coals there and processes them to concentrates.

For higher value-added germanium monocrystal production and manufacture of components for electronics and optics the material is shipped to Novomoskovsk outside Tula, Central Russia.

Its main co-investor, government-owned Rusnano, has supported more than 130 nanoprojects with a total worth of $17.5bn over the past four years, Rusnano’s official website says.

The four strategic directions

Germanium is a rare and highly expensive metal crucial for the development of everything from FOCLs and nanowires to thermal imagers and aerospace engineering.

The new hi-tech program Germanium and Applications is putting together will reportedly develop in four basic directions.

Single crystal germanium and zinc selenide blanks (discs, bars and plates) for infrared optical windows and lenses, electronic components and epitaxial substrates are considered the company’s main focus. Sizes will vary: from six to 300mm in diagonal for rectangular blanks to 200-300mm for lenses and round blanks, respectively.

For reference: germanium optical windows shield a system against penetration of any emission other than infrared, and germanium lenses, both spherical and aspherical, are critical for optical systems operating in infrared spectrum.

Polycrystalline germanium substrates and components for infrared optics will be further processed to develop nano-heterostructures, a key material for solar cells.

Polycrystalline germanium, another focus, is a raw material to grow germanium monocrystals with desired properties—products in strong demand from infrared optics, semiconductor detector and solar battery substrate makers.

The project owner also wants to produce germanium dioxide, an essential catalyst component for synthetic fiber production and other organic synthesis processes. Manufacturers of special glass for use in infrared spectrum reportedly need the compound, too, to ensure a higher refraction factor and superior transparency. Other applications for germanium dioxide include cosmetology and enamel and glaze making.

Where germanium works best

The new project’s know-how is a number of nano-dimensional coatings that shape the key competitive properties germanium products boast—primarily superb optical characteristics and increased mechanical strength.

Germanium-based optics is an integral part of night viewing devices and a material of choice in emission sensors. Germanium is widely used to make photovoltaic cell substrates, an imperative element of spacecraft-mounted solar batteries.

In lighting technology, the metal is an important reagent in phosphor production. It is also a good catalyst for a variety of chemical processes, helping metallurgists make special alloys.

It has even found its way to medicine in the form of components for bioactive additives and anti-cancer drugs.

Eager to have a tiger by the tail

Germanium and Applications is now expanding in an extremely volatile global market that just two years ago was reeling from the 2008-2009 economic meltdown.

Wrecking a large number of end-use germanium applications and nearly capsizing the market, the financial crisis didn’t, however, overturn the absolute dominance of China as the world’s largest producer of the metal and some basic germanium-containing products. China now accounts for an estimated 70% of global supply, notching up in 2010 its third consecutive year of output in excess of 100 tons and pushing prices over $1,200/kilo earlier this year.

With its new Tula regional project the Russian company has high hopes for making a dent in Chinese supremacy. It is an auspicious time, analysts feel, with US hi-tech industries—the world’s largest germanium consumer—witnessing a humble but reasonable recovery over the past year and Europe following close behind.

By 2015 global demand for germanium is expected to reach some 126 tons a year, with the ‘Asian tigers’ registering the fastest growth. It is by that time that the new production site outside Tula is to start operating at full throttle.
Oleg Kouzbit, managing editor: “I’m glad you join us here and take The Bridge walk for Marchmont’s weekly review of the Russian regions’ innovative present and future. Stay close and you’ll find out more of how Russia is bridging the existing gap between its researchers and businesses.”
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Tags: Rusnano (426) / germanium (1) / blanks (0) / Germanium and Applications (0) /

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