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Through the Gateway: Tellurium – A Rare Metal With Abundant Demand


It may not have felt like it, but spring is here, and love is in the air (not just according to us, but also according to science). We’re here to help – and thought we’d share this gem of a pick-up line (available on T-shirts online):

“You must be made of Copper and Tellurium, because you are CuTe.”  

 While we’re not sure if this kind of cheesiness has ever helped anyone get a date, it does allude to the close relationship between Copper and Tellurium.  Even less abundant than Rare Earths, most Tellurium used today is recovered as a co-product of mining and refining Copper and other base-metal-rich ore bodies.

Initially, Tellurium was primarily used as an additive to steel, copper and lead alloys, a process in which it helps improve machine efficiency.  Here, USGS specifically cites thermoelectric cooling applications and highlights Tellurium’s capabilities to improve ductility and tensile strength, as well as sulfuric acid corrosion prevention.

With the advent of the green technology revolution — and its ability to form a compound exhibiting enhanced electrical conductivity when alloyed with elements such as Cadmium — demand for Tellurium as a critical component for efficient, thin-film photovoltaic cells producing electricity from sunlight has soared.

Today, these Cadmium-telluride (CdTe — apparently no T-shirts made for this combination) solar cells represent the major end use for Tellurium in the United States – a fact that is unlikely to change any time soon, as solar power is booming, and recent lab results had CdTe technology break efficiency records when it comes to converting energy in sunlight into electricity.

Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, experts expect co-product supply via the Copper refinement process to remain the dominant source of Tellurium supply, with secondary production from recycled CdTe having the potential to contribute “a sizeable share of total production.” 

Bringing things back to our love theme – Bob Marley once famously proclaimed“No woman, no cry.”  Applied to material sciences, one could say “No Copper, No (or only little) Tellurium.” Or, in other words, the path to the very materials underpinning modern technology leads “Through the Gateway.”