Vital Materials, an MMTA Member since 2004, provides a fascinating example of the development of the Chinese minor metals industry. By following the vertical integration strategy on which it prides itself, Vital is dedicated to developing advanced materials and technologies for fast growing, high tech industries, including amongst others, clean energy, LED, communication, infrared detection, laser, fiber, and health care.
Globally, the company employs 1,600 people and is a market leader in selenium and tellurium materials, gallium, indium, germanium, bismuth and cadmium products.
|Vital Material’s production|
|Selenium||1,000 – 1,200|
|Tellurium||300 – 350|
|Gallium||100 – 120|
|Germanium||50 – 60|
|Bismuth||3,000 – 5,000|
|Cadmium||6,000** – 8,000|
|Indium||300 – 350|
|*Metal contained, **including world distribution and trading volumes|
It was on a beautiful, sunny day that the MMTA, along with other delegates of the CNIA Global Minor Metals Forum (China), arrived to visit the Guangzhou headquarters of Vital Materials. Our hosts graciously showed us around several of the factories located on the site, which is a modern and spacious plant in Qingyuan, on the outskirts of the city. One of the first things that stands out on visiting the site is the focus on sustainable solutions. These include customized closed loop recycling, and a commitment that is embedded throughout the company to being a responsible and sustainable materials technology group.
After viewing the range of products displayed in the reception area, along with a model of the complex, we were taken on a guided tour to see some of the products being produced at the site.
The role of minor metals in modern industry is significant, and Vital Materials manufactures over 100 products in the seven categories of materials: selenium, tellurium, indium, gallium, germanium, bismuth and cadmium.
The wide range of products include (but are by no means limited to) semiconductors, such as gallium arsenide – used in the manufacturing of devices such as microwave frequency integrated circuits, light-emitting diodes, laser diodes, solar cells and infrared optical windows, and bismuth telluride which, when alloyed with antimony or selenium, is an efficient thermoelectric material for refrigeration or power generation. Another product, zinc selenide, is very important for infrared optics applications and IR imaging systems. Materials are produced for use in RF and Microwave semiconductor devices, widely used in mobile communication, wireless LAN, and multimedia, as well as evaporation and sputtering coating materials for the solar and optoelectronic industries.
The company has developed dynamically since its founder and President, George Zhu, started producing selenium dioxide along with a small team for Chinese customers in electrolytic manganese back in 1995.
George Zhu puts the company’s growth into context: “We invested over USD300M before 2014, not perfect timing for us, but our positive focus on the future and great excitement due to new products almost quarterly is making us stronger”.
By 2003, with 250 employees, the operation of First Rare Materials Co., Ltd was producing selenium, tellurium and cadmium alloys and chemicals in Heyuan Industrial Park.
With the Chinese market growing in all sectors by 2009 – solar, telecoms, semi-conductors, using advanced minor metal products – the company invested USD40M to build a fully integrated minor metals upstream recycling plant, capable of treating 25 different metal streams. By this point, the employee base worldwide had grown to over 800.
Historically, recycling in the industry has been variable, with many minor metals still lost at end of life. However, it is well-known that a large portion of waste generated within the industry contains valuable metal elements. The company highlights its dedication to the development of tailor-made recycling technologies, allowing for the reuse of valuable metal elements by means of re-purification, pointing out that “this will not only generate economic benefits, but also contribute to environmental protection”.
In 2011, George decided to invest heavily in downstream advanced products. Raising USD300M, construction of the advanced materials facility as a 52 hectare site in Qingyuan, outside Guangzhou began.
Acquisitions in the USA of Bolton Metal Products (2011), producing specialty alloy and LMPA products, and Phoenix Infrared Corporation (2012) followed, and in 2013, Vital purchased the pigments operation in Tianjin from Capelle, establishing Vital Pigments Co. Ltd in Teda Industrial Park. The company also set up a Joint Venture with Hangzhou Jingjiang Group for the supply of 4N gallium metal units.
George reflects that: “2014, 2015 and most 2016 were difficult years for underlying commodity prices. We have worked through these years and with localization and continued growth in China, the future for minor metals within our range of advanced downstream products is exciting”.
The growth continued throughout 2014, with the full commissioning of the Advanced Materials Plant at Qingyuan. Production lines include metal organics (TMGa, TMIn), high purity (6N, 7N), GaAs substrates, Ge substrates, InP substrates, thin film materials, infrared and radiation detection. The total worldwide workforce now exceeded 1,000. Vital also signed a Joint Venture with Umicore for the production of ITO Targets, establishing Umicore Vital Thin Film Technologies during 2014. It includes a manufacturing facility in Providence USA. Construction of the second ITO Plant also started in Qingyuan.
Bringing developments up-to-date, in 2016, Vital’s worldwide workforce reached over 1,600, and the company commissioned its CleanTech operation in the Xiongxing Industrial Park, for the processing of licensed hazardous waste in China, as well as waste streams from its own operations.
In the words of George Zhu, the future for Vital is bright: “We are recruiting in all areas, both in China and overseas”. There are, he says, currently “positions available for Commodity Sales Managers, Advance Product Sales Engineers, Qingyuan R&D Engineers, Recycling & Sourcing Managers and Technical Sales Engineers.”
Maria Cox, MMTA