Tellurium, one of the rarest elements on earth, was once not thought to be very useful. According to USGS and a Mining Journal Review article, half of its traditional use is as an alloying agent in iron and steel to improve machinability; 25% of it is in catalysts and chemical use; 10% of it in alloying with non-ferrous metals like copper and lead; 8% of it is in electronic application and the remaining 7% in other applications, including as pigment agent in ceramics.
Annual global tellurium production is about 170 tons to 200 tons, based on various different estimates. It's mainly produced from the anode slime accumulated during electrolytic process of copper refining. According to this detailed analysis, copper produced from different places contain vastly different tellurium content. Typically, one ton of copper contains 100 grams of tellurium and only 33 grams are extracted and produced using existing technology. That caps the current global tellurium production at no more than 400 tons, without major investment to improve the tellurium extraction efficiency, assuming globally 12.4 million tons of copper is produced using electrolytic process per year. Because of the low quantity and thin revenue of tellurium in comparison to the revenue from main copper product, copper refineries are UNLIKELY to invest money, time and effort to improve the tellurium extraction rate, unless tellurium price goes up a lot from here, approaching gold price levels.
According to USGS, tellurium price started 2004 at $10 a pound. By the year-end it reached $22.50 a pound. In 2005 the price quickly rallied to $130-$180 a pound in mid year, then flat down to $100-$130 a pound. In 2006, it once again ran up to $155 a pound and then settled for the year at $50-$75 a pound.
So what prompted the rapid price raise? First Solar's (FSLR) CdTe solar panel was one of the demand factors. FSLR produced 60 MW in 2006 and about 20 MW in 2005. At 8 grams of tellurium per panel and 60 watts per panel, that's 8 tons tellurium consumed in 2006 and 2.7 tons in 2005. That's barely 4% and 1.4% of the supply. It's a factor in demand increase, but not the major factor.
The main Te demand increase was from other applications. CD-RW discs use tellurium, as do DVD-RW discs. And even later, ReWritable Blu-Ray DVD discs were developed by Panasonic, using a material called tellurium-suboxide-palladium.
Recently, Intel (INTC) announced a new type of phase change memory chips to start mass production in later 2007. This also uses tellurium. To understand the background of this break through, you need to read an old article: A 30-year memory problem solved?
All those electronic applications mentioned above, CD, DVD and memory chips, relate to the same phase change material called chalcogenide, which contains tellurium. Chalcogenide, the material used in ovonics, is really the cultimation of decades of scientific research on amorphous materials, which was once considered of very little practical use, but of academic interest only.
I originally connected these dots from an article I read entitled "Is There a Tellurium Rush in the Making?". Kudos to Sergio Garcia de Alba for submitting the article Energy Conversion Devices: An Amorphous Gem, which finally allowed me to connect the dots. It's all related to tellurium. Energy Conversion Devices Inc. (ENER) was funded by Stanford Ovshinsky, who invented the amorphous semiconductor materials and coined the name Ovonics. He has numerous important inventions. Chalcogenide, which is a tellurium containing material, is one of them.
Today, after many decades of quiet research and perfection, chalcogenide has suddenly become a very very useful material, having revolutionized and is continuely revolutionizing the whole electronic industry. I like to compare the precious element tellurium to a supernova. It's been quiet and ignored for so long, but all of a sudden it erupts into an extremely bright superstar. The tellurium supernova shines so brightly that it could KILL.
Let's follow the ENER article a little bit:
...a little company called Ovonyx...licensed its memory technology to semiconductor giants like Intel (which is a partner in Ovonyx), Samsung, Elpida, Hynix, Qimonda, and ST Microelectronics. The memory technology is based on chalcogenidephase change memory. It is expected to replace NOR flash memory, and could also eventually replace DRAM and NAND flash. Samsung has announced production of a 512Mbit part in 2008, and Intel a 128Mbit part that could arrive as soon as the end of this year or early 2008 (Intel's part codename is Alverstone). ...What's interesting for investors is that phase change memory could become a $40 billion+ market in a few years.
This phase change material thing is really HUGE! $40B+ market just in memory chips and we have not even included all the rewritable CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray DVDs. And it ultimately could also replace the hard disk drives so future computers would no longer need a hard disk drive.
A person using a computer with PRAM could turn it off and back on and pick up right where he left off -- and he could do so immediately or 10 years later. Such computers would not lose critical data in a system crash or when the power went out unexpectedly. 'Instant-on' would become a reality, and users would no longer have to wait for a system to boot up and load DRAM. PRAM memory could also significantly increase battery life for portable devices.
How wonderful it would be!
Needless to say, this whole new chalcogenide based electronic industry will consume a lot of tellurium, probably all the global tellurium production and then some more. It will drive the price of tellurium to a crazily high level, maybe at gold price, maybe at platinum price, and in doing so, it will kill a lot of trivial, low added value industry users of tellurium.
The kill of this tellurium supernova will probably include FSLR. This company is most vulnerable because it uses a lot of tellurium in its solar panels, any dramatic tellurium price will increase its cost to the level that it can no longer have a profit margin. When a business no longer has a profit margin, it cannot survive. But the tellurium kill probably will go behind that. Tellurium as an alloying agent will probably have to end, as will tellurium used in portable electronic beverage coolers.
My advice to people would be to buy and hoard some tellurium metal ingots if you can still find anything at decent price. If you have FSLR long positions, I recommend that you sell them before it is too late. Tellurium, such a scarce and precious natural resource, is one of nature's best gifts to human kind, and it was never meant to be used on trivial things like generating a few watts of solar electricity; rather, it should only be used in high value added and far more useful things like advanced computer memory chips.
FSLR started on the wrong technology using the wrong material, the extremely toxic cadmium plus the extremely rare tellurium, a deadly combination leading this otherwise aggressively growing company onto a death march. It's a tragedy of nature's making, not the management's fault. But the FSLR management really need to wise up and realize that their sole CdTe product will lead them to nowhere. They must diversify into other technologies, or they may have to shut down business just a few years down the road.
Full disclosure: I currently do not have any ENER position but is looking for opportunity to buy some. I have short positions in FSLR and am planning to short more when it starts the eventual collapse. I am also actively buying physical tellurium metal ingots as investment.