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Germanium is a metalloid element that can be found naturally in water and food. It is used as a semiconductor material in electronic devices such as high-speed integrated circuits and in solar cell applications. It is also used to manufacture phase-change optical magnetic discs that are used in DVDs and Blu-Rays. The lack of recycling processes for these discs increases the exposure to germanium and poses a risk to human health.
Germanium has a diamond structure and is chemically stable in air, but it can be oxidized in chlorine or bromine. It is insoluble in water, hydrochloric acid and dilute sulfuric acid. It is soluble in molten caustic soda, nitrate and carbonate to form germanate.
Traces of germanium are found in zinc sulfide, copper sulfide and arsenic sulfide ores. It is less common than oxygen or silicon, but more prevalent than uranium, mercury, silver and gold in the Earth’s crust. It is present in rock, soil and springs to a concentration of about seven parts per million.
Inorganic germanium concentrates mainly in the sulfide minerals argyrodite Ag8GeS6, renierite Cu3(Ga,As)2Fe4S16 and briartite Cu3(Ga,As,Fe)S4. It is found in a few oxide minerals such as rutile, lonite and magnetite and is present to a lesser degree in silicates like topaz, epidote and garnet. It also accumulates in organic matter such as coal to a concentration of over 1.6% (Enghag 2004).
In the body, organic germanium compounds are thought to enhance immunity. Animal studies have shown that germanium sesquioxide boosts the activity of white blood cells and natural killer cells and inhibits the growth of cancer and parasitic organisms. However, clinical trials of the medicinal effects of germanium have been inconclusive.