I’ve previously written about China’s gallium export ban not impacting current global gallium supplies here. I’ve also written about the recent 2023 DOE Critical Materials Assessment, here. A deeper look at the Critical Materials Assessment shows the LED industry might be in for a rough ride.
The majority of white light LEDs are made using some form of gallium: gallium nitride (GaN), gallium arsenide (GaAs), etc. The above chart from the DOE assessment shows that production capacity is roughly 600 metric tons per year for the high-purity gallium needed for LEDs. DOE then calculated four potential gallium demand trajectories through 2035 based on projected growth in LED lighting, magnets in EVs and wind turbines, solar cells, and power electronics.
Trajectory A shows 2035 demand matching current production capacity, which is not a problem scenario. Trajectory B puts 2035 demand at almost 2X current production capacity. Trajectory C puts 2035 demand at roughly 3X the current production capacity. And trajectory D puts 2035 demand at greater than 7X current production capacity. C or D trajectories could mean real problems for the LED industry as soon as 2 to 3 years from now. Even an average of the four trajectory scenarios puts 2035 demand at more than 3X current production capacity. Demand exceeding production capacity would drive up gallium costs, potentially dramatically and soon.
The LED industry has enjoyed a very rapid and profound drop in the cost of LEDs, making the LED general lighting industry take off over the past 10 years. The rapid cost reduction has made LED the dominant lighting technology in nearly all general lighting applications, now. Spikes in gallium costs could potentially drive back up the costs of LEDs. One of the first casualties of this would likely be the elimination of CCT-selectable luminaires and lamps, as these products include at least twice the number of required LEDs to allow selecting a warm CCT LED channel, a cool CCT LED channel, or some “mixed” combinations of the two CCTs. Significantly more expensive LEDs could reverse the very popular trend of CCT-selectable lighting products. Some manufacturers have already moved nearly all their products to CCT-selectable. Such a move away from CCT-selectable products would be unpopular for manufacturers, distributors, and contractors.
Gallium use for other industries, such as consumer electronics and telecommunications, is insignificant compared to LEDs, magnets, solar cells, and power electronics, as seen in the above graph (Other Demand). The complete 2023 DOE Critical Materials Assessment can be downloaded here.
Top Image: DOE Critical Materials Assessment 2023