Pioneering the sourcing and recycling of sustainable germanium
and paving the way for a circular economy
Sustainability stands as one of Umicore’s foundational pillars. As an international firm specialising in producing, refining and recycling vital advanced materials, we continuously strive to transform sustainability into a competitive advantage. On this front and within the context of our Horizon 2020 strategy, Umicore has made key strides forward in the last five years toward our ambitious goal of supplying 100%-sustainable germanium – a metal that offers huge potential for cutting-edge technological applications.
Germanium: valuable and versatile – but not simple to find
When it comes to high-tech innovation, the unique characteristics of germanium are valuable in a whole host of applications, and the semiconductor is recognised as a critical material by the governing bodies of the European Union and the United States. To give just a few examples, germanium is used in fibre-optic cables required for 5G connectivity, in solar cells powering satellites and Mars rovers and in cutting-edge semiconductors.
Because its elemental state isn’t found in nature, most germanium is extracted through coal combustion or sourced as a by-product from the zinc production process. However – and crucial for Umicore as a supplier of sustainable materials – germanium can also be recycled.
Leading the entire industry by defining sustainable best practices
Research has shown that germanium sourced through zinc production has a 85%-smaller carbon footprint than germanium sourced from coal, and recycled germanium boasts a 95%-smaller footprint. As a result, sustainable germanium is an important focal point for our circularity efforts.
We’ve made significant progress on our quest toward 100%-sustainable germanium, enabling us to set highly demanding industry benchmarks through our own operations. In fact, between 2015 and 2020, Umicore has reduced its supply of coal-sourced germanium by 50%. Today, 50% of the germanium used by Umicore is recycled and more than two-thirds of the remainder is recovered from industrial by-products. Thanks to these efforts, we are considered amongst the most sustainable germanium manufacturers worldwide.
Among the key milestones we’ve achieved through partnerships, Umicore:
- signed multiple long-term agreements with a major company for sustainable germanium;
- established multiple licensing and recycling agreements with international partners to extract and concentrate germanium from waste streams;
- collaborated with a partner to develop an innovative, cost-effective process for germanium extraction from scrap and production waste;
- guided a photovoltaic technology business in methods to optimise the collection of germanium from their new manufacturing processes.
Shaping the future of circularity in high tech – and beyond
In addition to identifying and developing new ways to source germanium sustainably, these achievements have also led to deep, lasting and impactful relationships with our customers and partners. The positive outcomes are many and mutual, including financial benefits for every party in the supply chain, a stronger global focus on germanium as a circular resource, more environmentally friendly industrial processes, and much more.
At Umicore, we see it as our responsibility as a global industrial player to commit to ensuring a healthier planet for all. We’re proud of what we have achieved in collaboration with our partners, and look forward to further closing the germanium loop through innovative, multidisciplinary projects.