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Gallium | Understanding and definition of Gallium | The function and usefulness of Gallium

Gallium is a chemical element that has the symbol Ga and atomic number 31. Elemental gallium does not occur in nature, but as the gallium(III) salt in trace amounts in bauxite and zinc ores. A soft silvery metallic poor metal, elemental gallium is a brittle solid at low temperatures. As it liquefies slightly above room temperature, it will melt in the hand. Its melting point is used as a temperature reference point, and from its discovery in 1875 to the semiconductor era, its primary uses were in high-temperature thermometric applications and in preparation of metal alloys with unusual properties of stability, or ease of melting; some being liquid at room temperature or below. The alloy Galinstan (68.5% Ga, 21.5% In, 10% Sn) has a melting point of about −19 °C (−2 °F).

In semiconductors, the major-use compound is gallium arsenide used in microwave circuitry and infrared applications. Gallium nitride and indium gallium nitride, minority semiconductor uses, produce blue and violet light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and diode lasers. Semiconductor use is now almost the entire (> 95%) world market for gallium, but new uses in alloys and fuel cells continue to be discovered.

Gallium is not known to be essential in biology, but because of the biological handling of gallium's primary ionic salt gallium(III) as though it were iron(III), the gallium ion localizes to and interacts with many processes in the body in which iron(III) is manipulated. As these processes include inflammation, which is a marker for many disease states, several gallium salts are used, or are in development, as both pharmaceuticals and radiopharmaceuticals in medicine.

Elemental gallium is not found in nature, but it is easily obtained by smelting. Very pure gallium metal has a brilliant silvery color and its solid metal fractures conchoidally like glass. Gallium metal expands by 3.1% when it solidifies, and therefore storage in either glass or metal containers is avoided, due to the possibility of container rupture with freezing. Gallium shares the higher-density liquid state with only a few materials like silicon, germanium, bismuth, antimony and water.

Gallium attacks most other metals by diffusing into their metal lattice. Gallium for example diffuses into the grain boundaries of Al/Zn alloys or steel, making them very brittle. Also, gallium metal easily alloys with many metals, and was used in small quantities as a plutonium-gallium alloy in the plutonium cores of the first and third nuclear bombs, to help stabilize the plutonium crystal structure.

The melting point of 302.9146 K (29.7646°C, 85.5763°F) is near room temperature. Gallium's melting point (mp) is one of the formal temperature reference points in the International Temperature Scale of 1990 (ITS-90) established by BIPM. The triple point of gallium of 302.9166 K (29.7666°C, 85.5799°F), is being used by NIST in preference to gallium's melting point.

Gallium is a metal that will melt in one's hand. This metal has a strong tendency to supercool below its melting point/freezing point. Seeding with a crystal helps to initiate freezing. Gallium is one of the metals (with caesium, rubidium, francium and mercury) which are liquid at or near normal room temperature, and can therefore be used in metal-in-glass high-temperature thermometers. It is also notable for having one of the largest liquid ranges for a metal, and (unlike mercury) for having a low vapor pressure at high temperatures. Unlike mercury, liquid gallium metal wets glass and skin, making it mechanically more difficult to handle (even though it is substantially less toxic and requires far fewer precautions). For this reason as well as the metal contamination problem and freezing-expansion problems noted above, samples of gallium metal are usually supplied in polyethylene packets within other containers.

Gallium does not crystallize in any of the simple crystal structures. The stable phase under normal conditions is orthorhombic with 8 atoms in the conventional unit cell. Each atom has only one nearest neighbor (at a distance of 244 pm) and six other neighbors within additional 39 pm. Many stable and metastable phases are found as function of temperature and pressure.

The bonding between the nearest neighbors is found to be of covalent character, hence Ga2 dimers are seen as the fundamental building blocks of the crystal. This explains the drop of the melting point compared to its neighbour elements aluminium and indium. The compound with arsenic, gallium arsenide is a semiconductor commonly used in light-emitting diodes.

High-purity gallium is dissolved slowly by mineral acids.

Gallium has no known biological role, although it has been observed to stimulate metabolism.

Gallium does not exist in free form in nature, and the few high-gallium minerals such as gallite (CuGaS2) are too rare to serve as a primary source of the element or its compounds. Its abundance in the Earth's crust is approximately 16.9 ppm. Gallium is found and extracted as a trace component in bauxite and to a small extent from sphalerite. The amount extracted from coal, diaspore and germanite in which gallium is also present is negligible. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates gallium reserves to exceed 1 million tonnes, based on 50 ppm by weight concentration in known reserves of bauxite and zinc ores. Some flue dusts from burning coal have been shown to contain small quantities of gallium, typically less than 1% by weight.

The only two economic sources for gallium are as byproduct of aluminium and zinc production, while the sphalerite for zinc production is the minor source. Most gallium is extracted from the crude aluminium hydroxide solution of the Bayer process for producing alumina and aluminium. A mercury cell electrolysis and hydrolysis of the amalgam with sodium hydroxide leads to sodium gallate. Electrolysis then gives gallium metal. For semiconductor use, further purification is carried out using zone melting, or else single crystal extraction from a melt (Czochralski process). Purities of 99.9999% are routinely achieved and commercially widely available. An exact number for the world wide production is not available, but it is estimated that in 2007 the production of gallium was 184 tonnes with less than 100 tonnes from mining and the rest from scrap recycling.

The semiconductor applications are the main reason for the low-cost commercial availability of the extremely high-purity (99.9999+%) metal.

Gallium arsenide (GaAs) and gallium nitride (GaN) used in electronic components represented about 98% of the gallium consumption in the United States in 2007. About 66% of semiconductor gallium is used in the U.S. in integrated circuits (mostly gallium arsenide), such as the manufacture of ultra-high speed logic chips and MESFETs for low-noise microwave preamplifiers in cell phones. About 20% is used in optoelectronics. World wide gallium arsenide makes up 95% of the annual global gallium consumption.

Gallium arsenide is used in optoelectronics in a variety of infrared applications. Aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs) is used in high-powered infrared laser diodes. As a component of the semiconductors indium gallium nitride and gallium nitride, gallium is used to produce blue and violet optoelectronic devices, mostly laser diodes and light-emitting diodes. For example, gallium nitride 405 nm diode lasers are used as a violet light source for higher-density compact disc data storage, in the Blu-ray Disc standard.

Gallium is used as a dopant for the production of solid-state devices such as transistors. However, worldwide the actual quantity used for this purpose is minute, since dopant levels are usually of the order of a few parts per million.

Multijunction photovoltaic cells, developed for satellite power applications, are made by molecular beam epitaxy or metalorganic vapour phase epitaxy of thin films of gallium arsenide, indium gallium phosphide or indium gallium arsenide.The Mars Exploration Rovers and several satellites use triple junction gallium arsenide on germanium cells. Gallium is the rarest component of new photovoltaic compounds (such as copper indium gallium selenium sulfide or Cu(In,Ga)(Se,S)2) for use in solar panels as a more efficient alternative to crystalline silicon.
  1. Magnesium gallate containing impurities (such as Mn2+), is beginning to be used in ultraviolet-activated phosphor powder.
  2. Neutrino detection. Possibly the largest amount of pure gallium ever collected in a single spot is the Gallium-Germanium Neutrino Telescope used by the SAGE experiment at the Baksan Neutrino Observatory in Russia. This detector contains 55–57 tonnes of liquid gallium. Another experiment was the GALLEX neutrino detector operated in the early 1990s in an Italian mountain tunnel. The detector contained 12.2 tons of watered gallium-71. Solar neutrinos caused a few atoms of Ga-71 to become radioactive Ge-71, which were detected. The solar neutrino flux deduced was found to have a deficit of 40% from theory. This was not explained until better solar neutrino detectors and theories were constructed (see SNO).
  3. As a liquid metal ion source for a focused ion beam.
  4. As alloying element in the magnetic shape memory alloy Ni-Mn-Ga.
  5. In a classic prank by scientists, who fashion gallium spoons and serve tea to unsuspecting guests. The spoons melt in the hot tea.
  6. As an additive in glide wax for skiis, and other low friction surface materials. US 5069803, Sugimura, Kentaro; Shoji Hasimoto & Takayuki Ono, "Use of a synthetic resin composition containing gallium particles in the glide surfacing material of skis and other applications", issued 1995
While not considered toxic, the data about gallium are inconclusive. Some sources suggest that it may cause dermatitis from prolonged exposure; other tests have not caused a positive reaction. Like most metals, finely divided gallium loses its luster and powdered gallium appears gray. Thus, when gallium is handled with bare hands, the extremely fine dispersion of liquid gallium droplets, which results from wetting skin with the metal, may appear as a gray skin stain.

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