FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
A Defense Logistics Agency program for recycling optical-grade germanium used in military weapons systems and night vision equipment has led to new capability in the U.S. defense industrial base.
“Until now, there was no entity in the country that could do this complete process, from demilitarization and disassembly to ingot production. Everything that’s being done to recycle the material through this program is being done 100% stateside,” said Nancy Albertson, a chemist and program manager for DLA Strategic Materials.
The recycling is being done by a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business.
Optical-grade germanium is considered a critical material because it’s sourced mainly by China and could be hard to acquire in a national defense emergency.
“Mainland China pretty much has a chokehold on the market right now, so if it decided to either ramp up the cost or cut us off completely – and that’s not unheard of – that would be a very big issue for us,” Albertson said.
The U.S. relies on imports for over 50% of its germanium needs, and nationwide consumption was about 30,000 kilograms in 2020, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The DLA program is expected to yield 2,200 to 3,000 kilograms of recycled germanium a year – nearly 10% of the nation’s annual need – for use in night-vision and thermal-sensing devices in platforms like Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache helicopters and naval systems.
Most germanium scrap being recycled through the program is from Pennsylvania’s Tobyhanna Army Depot, which specializes in demilitarizing military optical systems. The agency is also working with Navy officials and others to expand access to scrap germanium. It can otherwise end up on a barge back to China or get dumped in a landfill, Albertson said.
Military organizations are bound by numerous executive orders and recent Defense Department policy to pursue acquisitions that are green and sustainable. While recycling germanium for new applications is inherently green, the program also reuses material that surrounds lenses and windows.
“Probably 98% of everything that goes into this process is recovered and recycled, including aluminum, stainless steel and recyclable polymers,” said Gary Porter, DLA Strategic Material’s director of material management. “It’s one of the reasons why this program is so successful.”
Even the recycling process is green, Albertson added. Most germanium lenses and windows are coated with thorium, a radioactive element, or carbon that must be removed before recycling. The contractor uses a self-contained process with water-based, environmentally friendly solvents to disassemble the scrap and remove the coating. Waste from thorium is shipped to Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center, which has experience disposing of radioactive waste. The rest is nonhazardous.
Albertson and Eric Deal, who monitors the recycling contract, verify that scrap is indeed germanium before it’s sent to DLA warehouses, where it’s then sorted for de-coating.
“Once the contractor de-coats it, they melt it down,” Albertson said, “It comes back to us in beautiful, shiny ingots that are 99.999% pure. A lot of metals you can’t get that pure. You’d never have that for bulk iron or zinc, for example.”
The ingots are glasslike and can be brittle, so they’re cradled in wooden storage boxes and kept in DLA warehouses until needed by equipment manufacturers who have contracts for making military systems. Though the program focuses on optical-grade germanium lenses and windows, the ingots could potentially be used for other Defense Department applications.
“The crystals that can be made with this germanium can also be used for solar cells in satellites. That’s just one of the many other ways DOD uses germanium,” Deal said. He’s also seen it used in proximity sensors in cars.
“There’s only so much germanium being produced in the world, and with more options for its use, we don’t want to have to compete for it,” Deal added. “That’s another good reason for us to recycle it.”
Germanium was added to the Strategic National Stockpile in the early 1980s after being recognized for its growing use in semiconductors, fiber optics, infrared sensors and other electronic applications.