Tellurium (Te) is used in a popular kind of solar cell, the CdTe photovoltaic. Only about 150 tonnes (t) of tellurium are produced a year. Looking at the elemental abundance chart we saw before, you see that tellurium is more abundant than gold (Au). But over 2,000 t of gold are produced on Earth per year. Why can’t we produce more tellurium?
It’s because tellurium is a byproduct of copper (Cu) production. The last stage of copper mining is to electrolytically refine copper on flat cathodes in an electrochemical cell. Selenium and tellurium just happen to form at the anodes in these cells, and so they are collected and sold as byproducts.
So using our current technology, you would double tellurium production by doubling copper production. But 16 million tonnes of copper are already produced every year, and that production uses 0.08% of all global energy. Doubling copper production is not realistic. So how would you double tellurium production? You have to start working to figure out another way to get it. The US Department of Energy anticipates a tellurium shortage by 2025 … (and looking back, it was one of the ECEs.)