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You probably haven’t heard of Gallium, but you definitely need to know about it

Quick Notes

  • Gallium was discovered relatively recently

  • It’s one of the most versatile materials in the electronics industry

  • It’s already in use in many of our electronics today

As we forge forward into the future, especially the future of digital technologies and communications, we need to find better, more reliable, more efficient methods of building and powering our devices. Many scientists are looking into options for technology to power our devices that offer lower footprints while still providing a massive punch in terms of power; and, lucky for us, they’ve had a breakthrough. Recent research has given us a new way to build our devices better, more safely, and more efficiently than ever before, though it rests on the shoulders of a rather unique material: gallium.

What is Gallium?

While its existence was anticipated by Mendeleev himself (the creator of the periodic table of elements), gallium wasn’t officially discovered until 1875, by a French chemist named Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. It’s not a naturally-occurring element, and it may take a few steps to actually get gallium, but the process is well worth the wait.

During the processing of bauxite (a sedimentary rock with a high aluminum content, which, incidentally, serves as the world’s largest source of aluminum) caustic liquor is created, and an impure form of gallium can be extracted from that. It’s also sometimes gathered during the processing of zinc.

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Once it’s refined to get to its pure form, gallium is a silvery, soft metal that has such a low melting point that it could melt from the heat of your hand if you picked it up (but its boiling point is insanely high—nearly 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Most of our uses of gallium don’t deal with pure gallium, however. We rely on two compounds, in particular (gallium arsenide and gallium nitride), for most of our gallium needs. 

Why Gallium is a super-element?

First of all, gallium acts as a great insulator. Compared to other elements currently used in our devices, it has a really high breakdown voltage, sitting at 1.8 kilovolts, which means it can hold a lot of voltage before it becomes conductive—a great quality to have for an insulator. Gallium far outranks current materials used for similar tasks. It also has a record power density of 155 megawatts per square centimeter, which means it’s a major powerhouse, literally.

Gallium is also very easy to work with, compared to similar materials that we’ve been using in our day-to-day technology. It bonds easily to almost all other metals, which makes it particularly versatile. With that versatility comes also a fairly high level of safety compared to materials that have been used in similar technologies. In high-temperature thermometers, for example, we typically use materials such as mercury or rubidium, but gallium is significantly safer, and far more environmentally friendly to use—it is far less reactive than the other materials, as well as the least toxic. It does need to be stored in non-glass containers, though, due to its propensity to expand when frozen.

Gallium has even been used in nuclear bombs to stabilize the crystal structure.

Already proving its worth

It’s already in several of the technologies that we use today, though its uses are predicted to grow significantly over the next few years. About 95% of gallium used today goes straight into the electronics industry, and the creation of gallium-based materials (like gallium-oxide) has increased with the demand. Things such as LEDs, semiconductors, and our cell phones are high consumers of the material. Gallium arsenide is used in circuits for things from infrared to microwaves, and the Mars Rover solar panels include gallium on their materials list. Gallium has even been used in nuclear bombs to stabilize the crystal structure.

With so many amazing technologies using gallium already, there are a lot of people studying how we can make gallium even more useful, as well as using gallium as a tool to study other things (the Neutrino Observatory in Italy, for example, uses gallium in its research of neutrinos produced by the sun). Who knows what other great uses could be found for this super-element?

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