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Terrain Minerals adds gallium, germanium to rare earths targets

Updated: Apr 30

Terrain Minerals air-core drilling at Lort River. Credit: File

Terrain Minerals is eyeing the potential to unearth gallium and germanium to complement the rare earths at its Lort River project near Esperance in Western Australia, where an air-core program recently intersected clay hosts.

The company’s 16-hole proof-of-concept program through 300m was designed to test for clay-hosted rare earths and rare semi-conductor mineralisation, with all holes intercepting clay zones to a maximum vertical depth of 38m.

But it is making no secret of the fact that it believes it also has the potential for significant mineralisation for gallium and germanium, which were both at the centre of sudden recent export restrictions by China – the world’s dominant producer and supplier.

Terrain began drilling at Lort River a week ago after securing heritage approval at its 100 per cent-owned, 320-square-kilometre project, just 50km north-west of Esperance, with a tentative objective of about 10 holes for 600m, subject to actual depths and drilling conditions.

The work was undertaken along road verges in all three of the company’s tenements and was designed to test the depth of clay zones, analyse for rare earths and gallium-germanium semiconductor grades and to assist in working up design parameters for its next stage of exploration. Drillholes were spaced about 3km apart to provide a broad geological cross section through high and low-lying areas across the project.

Drilling continued to blade refusal, with all holes penetrating clay horizons of at least 1 to 2m. Many of the holes were close to an historic 1m-deep auger soils program, which had previously returned positive results for rare earths mineralisation.

Terrain is one of nine companies engaged in a study by the Minerals Research Institute of WA (MRIWA) into the characterisation of the State’s clay-hosted rare earths deposits. The study is partly funded by the WA Government and by industry and is aimed at advancing the WA rare earths sector.

Accordingly, bulk sample material from the drilling program will be submitted for the MRIWA district study for analysis, with additional testing for gallium and germanium to be undertaken, owing to their growing prominence in industries related to modern decarbonisation technologies, in addition to having an increasing strategic and military importance at a time of heightened global tensions.

The growing gallium and germanium interest stems largely from the July 3 decision by China to restrict exports as of August 1. Both markets are dominated by China, which has the respective global production capacities of a staggering 68 per cent and more than 90 per cent, according to the US Geological Survey.

The restrictions will include measures where the Chinese government will need to approve exports of the rare commodities, based on preserving security and national interests. The commodities are critical components in semiconductor chips which lie at the heart of all modern technologies – in particular, those used in information technology (IT), artificial intelligence (AI), smartphones, computers, electric vehicles (EVs) and military applications such as radars, lasers and spy satellites.

China’s decision appears to be part of an ongoing tech-trade war with the United States and the Netherlands, which arose after pressure from the US on October 7 last year. That was a date marking the start of a new era in US-China relations and international politics, when the US Government enacted a series of new export control regulations targeting China’s AI and semiconductor industries.

It extended to US pressure being applied on the Dutch to limit the export of chip-making equipment abroad, specifically to China, It was designed to prevent the world’s most advanced semiconductors and the lithographic printing machines made by Dutch company ASML, from reaching Chinese companies.

Japan and the US have also taken steps to limit Chinese companies from accessing chips and chip-making equipment. But China has reacted swiftly and has sequestered all of its existing chip-making equipment.

It is now picking up whatever equipment it can from abroad in order to begin developing its own high-end manufacturing of chip-making to achieve total independence from the Netherlands and now also the US in a series of tit-for-tat moves.

The prevailing view now is that with China being the world-leading producer of gallium and germanium, the export restrictions will probably increase prices for manufacturers or slow down production. Both metals are on the European Union’s list of critical raw materials and deemed “crucial to Europe’s economy”.

Gallium occurs in only small concentrations in ores of other metals. Most gallium is produced as a byproduct of processing bauxite and the remainder comes from zinc-processing residues. The average gallium content of bauxite is 50 parts per million.

The chemical and physical properties of gallium make it well suited for use in high-performance applications such as advanced military equipment. It may be combined with other materials to produce a special class of chips known as wide bandgap semiconductors that can handle higher temperatures, voltages and frequencies than conventional silicon chips, making them smaller, faster and more efficient.

There was a 96 per cent increase in China’s primary low-purity gallium (99.99 per cent) prices from $140 per kilogram in January, to $275 per kilogram in December, 2020. It was followed by a further 25 per cent increase to $345 per kilogram in October, 2021.

Germanium is mainly a byproduct of zinc ore processing. Its current importance lies in the fact that it is also a semiconductor with electrical properties between those of a metal and an insulator.

The development of the germanium transistor historically opened the door to countless applications of solid-state electronics. From 1950 through to the early 1970s, the industry provided an increasing market for germanium before it was replaced by high-purity silicon in transistors, diodes and rectifiers.

Meanwhile, demand for germanium in fibre-optics communication networks, infrared night vision systems and polymerisation catalysts has increased dramatically. Those end uses represented 85 per cent of worldwide germanium consumption for 2000.

That requirement has exceeded primary production in recent years, but releases of germanium from government stockpiles and increased recycling has provided adequate supply. The year’s-end price for germanium in 2000 was $1150 per kilogram, while today it sits at about $2756.

Terrain says it is awaiting analytical results from its drilling and they will be announced in due course. If the company can manage to get its hands on the rare earths, gallium and germanium trifecta, it will be well placed to finding a novel niche in a rapidly evolving market.

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