Clemens Alexander Winkler and Germanium
December 26, 1838 is the date of birth of Clemens Alexander Winkler in Freiberg, Germany. Winkler was a professor at the Freiberg School of Mining. In 1886 he discovered the element, Germanium. The element had been predicted in 1871.
Germanium is a chemical element with symbol Ge and atomic number 32. It is a lustrous, hard, grayish-white metalloid in the carbon group, chemically similar to its group neighbors tin and silicon. Pure germanium is a semiconductor with an appearance similar to elemental silicon. Like silicon, germanium naturally reacts and forms complexes with oxygen in nature. Unlike silicon, it is too reactive to be found naturally on Earth in the free (elemental) state.
Because it seldom appears in high concentration, germanium was discovered comparatively late in the history of chemistry. Germanium ranks near fiftieth in relative abundance of the elements in the Earth's crust. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev predicted its existence and some of its properties from its position on his periodic table, and called the element ekasilicon. Nearly two decades later, in 1886, Clemens Winkler found the new element along with silver and sulfur, in a rare mineral called argyrodite. Although the new element somewhat resembled arsenic and antimony in appearance, the combining ratios in compounds agreed with Mendeleev's predictions for a relative of silicon. Winkler named the element after his country, Germany. Today, germanium is mined primarily from sphalerite (the primary ore of zinc), though germanium is also recovered commercially from silver, lead, and copper ores.
Germanium "metal" (isolated germanium) is used as a semiconductor in transistors and various other electronic devices. Historically, the first decade of semiconductor electronics was based entirely on germanium. Today, the amount of germanium produced for semiconductor electronics is one fiftieth the amount of ultra-high purity silicon produced for the same. Presently, the major end uses are fibre-optic systems, infrared optics, solar cell applications, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Germanium compounds are also used for polymerization catalysts and have most recently found use in the production of nanowires. This element forms a large number of organometallic compounds, such as tetraethylgermane, useful in organometallic chemistry.
Germanium is not thought to be an essential element for any living organism. Some complex organic germanium compounds are being investigated as possible pharmaceuticals, though none have yet proven successful. Similar to silicon and aluminum, natural germanium compounds tend to be insoluble in water and thus have little oral toxicity. However, synthetic soluble germanium salts are nephrotoxic, and synthetic chemically reactive germanium compounds with halogens and hydrogen are irritants and toxins.
Applications in Electronics
Silicon-germanium alloys are rapidly becoming an important semiconductor material for high-speed integrated circuits. Circuits utilizing the properties of Si-SiGe junctions can be much faster than those using silicon alone. Silicon-germanium is beginning to replace gallium arsenide (GaAs) in wireless communications devices. The SiGe chips, with high-speed properties, can be made with low-cost, well-established production techniques of the silicon chip industry.
Solar panels are a major use of germanium. Germanium is the substrate of the wafers for high-efficiency multijunction photovoltaic cells for space applications. High-brightness LEDs, used for automobile headlights and to backlight LCD screens, are an important application.
Because germanium and gallium arsenide have very similar lattice constants, germanium substrates can be used to make gallium arsenide solar cells. The Mars Exploration Rovers and several satellites use triple junction gallium arsenide on germanium cells.
Germanium-on-insulator substrates are seen as a potential replacement for silicon on miniaturized chips. Other uses in electronics include phosphors in fluorescent lamps and solid-state light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Germanium transistors are still used in some effects pedals by musicians who wish to reproduce the distinctive tonal character of the "fuzz"-tone from the early rock and roll era, most notably the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face.
The notable properties of germania (GeO2) are its high index of refraction and its low optical dispersion. These make it especially useful for wide-angle camera lenses, microscopy, and the core part of optical fibers. It has replaced titania as the dopant for silica fiber, eliminating the subsequent heat treatment that made the fibers brittle. At the end of 2002, the fiber optics industry consumed 60% of the annual germanium use in the United States, but this is less than 10% of worldwide consumption. GeSbTe is a phase change material used for its optic properties, such as that used in rewritable DVDs.
Because germanium is transparent in the infrared wavelengths, it is an important infrared optical material that can be readily cut and polished into lenses and windows. It is especially used as the front optic in thermal imaging cameras working in the 8 to 14 micron range for passive thermal imaging and for hot-spot detection in military, mobile night vision, and fire fighting applications. It is used in infrared spectroscopes and other optical equipment that require extremely sensitive infrared detectors. It has a very high refractive index (4.0) and must be coated with anti-reflection agents. Particularly, a very hard special antireflection coating of diamond-like carbon (DLC), refractive index 2.0, is a good match and produces a diamond-hard surface that can withstand much environmental abuse.