Tellurium – Making Your Flash Memory Smaller and Smarter

on Sep 18, 2012
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Tellurium, a relatively unknown chemical element, has so-far mainly been used in alloys,solar panels and as a colouring agent. With recent advances in technology the metal has become essential for one of the key computing industries: digital storage.

The digital storage industry, currently priced at some $50 billion (£31 billion), is rapidly expanding and prepares for a leap that couldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for tellurium. At the cutting edge of technology right now is phase-change memory (PCM), which is capable of simultaneously increasing computing devices’ storage capacity while simultaneously reducing their size. Simply put the technology uses chalcogenides made of “glass-like materials … typically made of a mixture of germanium, antimony and tellurium” as a medium to store information by reorganizing materials’ atomic-level structure in microchip cells.

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Using PCM is nothing new – it has been utilised in rewriteable CDs and DVDs to allow them to store and delete information. What is different and what propels and challenges producers is that nowadays PCM is applied on a much smaller scale. The playground is microchips, which rely on flash memory to store information through trapping electrons in small compartments to indicate a 1 or 0.

!m[](/uploads/story/382/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)According to Jeremy Wagstaff, Reuters’ chief technology correspondent, the “miniaturization of technology”, or striving to decrease size to the maximum while increasing storage capacity, is expected to hit a physical limit in the next five years and impair any progress made in the industry.
With tellurium a vital component in PCM, more and more people are closely following the metal’s price. On Tuesday, 11 September, tellurium prices have finally broken their declining trend and have accumulated an upward momentum reaching a range of $90 to $135 per kilogram. The price support came from increased demand in Chinese markets, where a number of speculative investors and strategically-minded consumers have started stocking up.

According to UK-based Metal-Pages, the confidence in the tellurium market was regained after Germany transitioned towards solar energy and added another 543 MW of photovoltaic (PV) capacity in July. There was also a substantial sales rebound of around $957 million (£593 million) for cadmium telluride PV producer First Solar. The company is critically dependent on tellurium and if it wants to expand and maintain competitive pricing, it will need a growing supply of the metal. But according to Jack Lifton, president of Jack Lifton LLC, the maximum supply and production of tellurium are quantifiable and they do not bode well for First Solar’s ambitions.

Demand for the metal has diversified and producers are looking to get their hands on the vital component not only for the solar-powar industry but also for producing phase-change memory devices.
The only commercially viable way to obtain tellurium is by extracting it from copper. According to the US national renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), total annual maximum production is no more than 1,600 metric tonnes per year, which makes tellurium the scarcest of all copper by-products.

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