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Tellurium

December 19, 2017

Tellurium (Te) is a very rare element that averages only 3 parts per billion in Earth’s upper crust. It shows a close association with gold and may be present in orebodies of most gold deposit types at levels of tens to hundreds of parts per million. In large-tonnage mineral deposits, such as porphyry copper and seafloor volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits, sulfide minerals may contain hundreds of parts per million tellurium, although the orebodies likely have overall concentrations of 0.1 to 1.0 parts per million tellurium. Tellurium is presently recovered as a primary ore from only two districts in the world; these are the gold-tellurium epithermal vein deposits located adjacent to one another at Dashuigou and Majiagou (Sichuan Province) in southwestern China, and the epithermal-like mineralization at the Kankberg deposit in the Skellefteå VMS district of Västerbotten County, Sweden. Combined, these two groups of deposits account for about 15 percent (about 70 metric tons) of the annual global production of between 450 and 470 metric tons of tellurium. Most of the world’s tellurium, however, is produced as a byproduct of the mining of porphyry copper deposits. These deposits typically yield concentrations of 1 to 4 percent tellurium in the anode slimes recovered during copper refining. Present production of tellurium from the United States is solely from the anode slimes at ASARCO LLC’s copper refinery in Amarillo, Texas, and may total about 50 metric tons per year. The main uses of tellurium are in photovoltaic solar cells and as an additive to copper, lead, and steel alloys in various types of machinery. The environmental data available regarding the mining of tellurium are limited; most concerns to date have focused on the more-abundant metals present in the large-tonnage deposits from which tellurium is recovered as a byproduct. Global reserves of tellurium are estimated to be 24,000 metric tons, based on the amount of tellurium likely contained in global copper reserves and on a 50 percent recovery rate from refinery anode slimes during the commonly used electrolytic process, also known as solvent extraction-electrolytic refining. If the more economical solvent-leach process—a process that does not recover tellurium—is increasingly used in the future to recover lower grades of copper from porphyry and other large-tonnage deposits, then additional high-grade tellurium-rich gold deposits may become new primary sources for tellurium, particularly epithermal vein deposits associated with alkaline magmatism.