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Chemistry of Tellurium (Z=52)

Discovered by von Reichenstein in 1782, tellurium is a brittle metalloid that is relatively rare. It is named from the Latin tellus for "earth". Tellurium can be alloyed with some metals to increase their machinability and is a basic ingredient in the manufacture of blasting caps. Elemental tellurium is occasionally found in nature but is more often recovered from various gold ores, all containing \(AuTe_2\).


Tellurium was discovered in a gold ore from the mines in Zlatna, near present day Sibiu, Transylvania. The ore was known as "Faczebajer weißes blättriges Golderz" (white leafy gold ore from Faczebaja) or antimonalischer Goldkies (antimonic gold pyrite). In 1782, while serving as the Austrian chief inspector of mines in Transylvania Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein concluded that ore did not contain antimony, but that it contained bismuth sulfide. However the following year, he reported that this was erroneous and that the ore contained mostly gold and an unknown metal very similar to antimony. After 3 years of testing Müller determined the specific gravity of the mineral and noted the radish-like odor of the white smoke, which passed off, when the new metal was heated. In 1789, another Hungarian scientist, Pál Kitaibel, also discovered the element independently in an ore from Deutsch-Pilsen which had been regarded as argentiferous molybdenite, but later he gave the credit to Müller. In 1798, it was named by Martin Heinrich Klaproth who earlier isolated it from the mineral calaverite.


Tellurium is a semimetallic, lustrous, crystalline, brittle, silver-white element. It is usually available as a dark grey powder and has metal and non-metal properties. Te forms many compounds corresponding to those of sulfur and selenium. When burned in the air tellurium has a greenish-blue flame and forms tellurium dioxide as a result. Tellurium is unaffected by water or hydrochloric acid, but dissolves in nitric acid. It as an atomic mass of 127.6 g/mol-1 and a density of 6.24 g-cm-3. It's boiling point is at 450 degrees Celsius and its melting point is at 1390 °C. 

Source and Abundance

There are eight naturally occurring isotopes of Tellurium, of which three are radioactive. Tellurium is among the rarest stable solid elements in the Earth's crust. At 0.005 ppm, it is comparable to platinum in abundance. However, tellurium is far more abundant in the wider universe. Tellurium was originally and is most commonly found in gold tellurides. However, the largest sources for modern production of tellurium is as a byproduct of blister copper refinement. The treatment of 500 tons of copper ore results in 0.45 kg of tellurium. Tellurium can also be found in lead deposits. Other tellurium sources, known as subeconomic deposits because the cost of abstraction outweighs the yield in tellurium, are lower-grade copper and some coal.

Originally, the copper tellurium ore is treated with sodium bicarbonate and elemental oxygen to produce a tellurium oxide salt, copper oxide, and carbon dioxide:

\[Cu_2Te + Na_2CO_3 + 2O_2 \rightarrow  2CuO + Na_2TeO_3 + CO_2\]

Then, the sodium tellurium oxide is treated with sulfuric acid to precipitate out tellurium dioxide which can be treated with aqueous sodium hydroxide to reduce to pure tellurium and oxygen gas:

\[TeO_2 + 2NaOH \rightarrow Na_2TeO_3 + H_2O \rightarrow Te + 2NaOH + O_2\]

Industrial and Commercial Use

Tellurium has many unique industrial and commercial uses that improve product quality and quality-of-life. Many of these technologies that utilize tellurium have important uses for the energy industry, the military, and health industries. Tellurium is used to color glass and ceramics and can improve the machining quality of metal products. When added to copper alloys, tellurium makes the alloy more ductile, whereas it can prevent corrosion in lead products. Tellurium is an important component of infrared detectors used by the military as well as x-ray detectors used by a variety of fields including medicine, science, and security. In addition, tellurium-based catalysts are used to produce higher-quality rubber. CdTe films are one of the highest efficiency photovoltaics, metals that convert sunlight directly into electrical power, at 11-13% efficiency and are, therefore, widely used in solar panels. CdTe is a thin-film semiconductor that absorbs sunlight.

Tellurium can be replaced by other elements in some of its uses. For many metallurgical uses, selenium , bismuth , or lead are effective substitutes. Both selenium and sulfur can replace tellurium in rubber production. Technologies based on tellurium have global impacts. As a photovoltaic, CdTe is the second most utilized solar cell in the world, soon said to surpass crystalline silicon and become the first. According to the US military, the tellurium-based infrared detectors are the reason that the military has such an advantage at night, an advantage which, in turn, has an effect on global and domestic politics.

Environmental Impacts

Tellurium extraction, as a byproduct of copper refinement, shares environmental impacts associated with copper mining and extraction. While a generally safe process, the removal of copper from other impurities in the ore is can lead to leaching of various hazardous sediments. In addition, the mining of copper tends to lead to reduced water flow and quality, disruption of soils and erosion of riverbanks, and reduction of air quality.

Resource Limitations v. Demand

About 215-220 tons of tellurium are mined across the globe every year. In 2006, the US produced 40% of production, Peru produced 30%, Japan produced 20%, and Canada produced 10% of the world's tellurium supply (since the chart can't be any bigger). The leading countries in production are the United States with 50 tons per year, Japan with 40 tons per year, Canada with 16 tons per year, and Peru with 7 tons per year (year 2009). When pure, tellurium costs $24 per 100 grams.  Because tellurium is about as rare as platinum on earth, the United States Department of Energy expects a supply shortfall by the year 2025, despite the always improving extraction methods. As demand increases to provide the tellurium needed for solar panels and other such things, supply will continue to decrease and thus the price will skyrocket. This will cause waves in the sustainable energy movement as well as military practices and modern medicine.