Germanium: Definition & Uses

Instructor: Marauo Davis

Marauo has taught both chemistry and mathematics in the high school and college setting and has a Ph.D. degree in chemistry.

Have you ever heard of an element that can behave as both a metal and a nonmetal? Read here to discover background information and uses of one of the most notable elements that behaves this way!

What is Germanium?

What can be said about the element germanium? Well, for starters, germanium has the chemical abbreviation Ge and has the atomic number 32. Germanium is highly lustrous (shiny), hard, and grayish in color. This unique element is in the class known as metalloids. Metalloids are a very special class of elements that possess properties of both metals and nonmetals. For example, metalloids typically appear metallic to the naked eye. However, unlike pure metals, metalloids do not readily conduct electricity. For this reason, most metalloids are referred to as semiconductors.

Germanium is a member of Group 14, 'the carbon family'. Like carbon and the other elements in this group, germanium enjoys being bonded with four other atoms. Typically, elements increase in atomic radius down the column of each group in the periodic table, and this group is no exception. Therefore, as expected, germanium is slightly larger in atomic radius than silicon but smaller in atomic radius than tin. Chemically, germanium behaves similarly to both silicon and tin.

As previously mentioned, germanium is a semiconductor, and many electronic devices previously used germanium as the semiconductor of choice. It was not until much later that silicon replaced most of the germanium in these electronic devices.

Periodic Table
Periodic Table

So you may be wondering about the importance of germanium. Is germanium essential to daily life like many of the other elements in the periodic table? Well, if you guessed 'yes' then you are both right and wrong. Right and wrong? Yes! It is actually suggested that we intake approximately 1 mg of germanium each day, because many experts believe that germanium may be important in increasing overall health and boosting our immune systems. However, there is no hard proof that supports the idea that we cannot live without germanium.

Uses of Germanium

Now that we have discussed the general significance of germanium, we can talk about some real applications of this unique element. We now know that germanium is a semiconductor or metalloid, and therefore has the properties of both a metal and a nonmetal. It is actually because of this bipolar behavior that germanium can be utilized in a variety of applications.

For example, it has been estimated that 65% of all germanium is used in the field of optics. Another 15% of all germanium is used in chemistry as catalysts, which speed up chemical reactions. Yet another 15% has been employed in the area of solar panels and electronics, with the remaining 5% going to other areas. Just from this breakdown, it is very clear that germanium is a useful and highly exploited element.

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