tellurium [Lat.,=earth], semimetallic chemical element; symbol Te; at. no. 52; at. wt. 127.60; m.p. 450°C;; b.p. 990°C;; sp. gr. 6.24 at 20°C;; valence -2, +4, or +6. Tellurium is a lustrous, brittle, crystalline, silver-white metalloid. A powdery brown form of the element is also known. Tellurium forms many compounds corresponding to those of sulfur and selenium, the elements above it in Group 16 of the periodic table. The dioxide, TeO2, is formed when the element is burned in air. Tellurium forms two weak acids and a number of halogen compounds. With hydrogen and with some metals it forms tellurides. Tellurium and its compounds are probably poisonous. Tellurium is occasionally found uncombined in nature but is more often found combined with metals, as in the minerals calaverite (gold telluride) and sylvanite (silver-gold telluride). Tellurium is recovered as a byproduct of the electrolytic refining of blister copper. It is used as an additive to steel and is often alloyed with aluminum, copper, lead, or tin. It is used in vulcanizing rubber, as a coloring agent in glass and ceramics, and in catalysts for petroleum cracking. Tellurium is a semiconductor material and is slightly photosensitive. It is used with bismuth in thermoelectric devices. Tellurium was discovered in 1782 by Franz Muller von Reichenstein. It was named by M. H. Klaproth, who isolated it in 1798.
Tellurium is a chemical element that has the symbol Te and atomic number 52. A brittle silver-white metalloid which looks like tin, tellurium is chemically related to selenium and sulfur. Tellurium is primarily used in alloys and as a semiconductor.


Tellurium is extremely rare, one of the nine rarest metallic elements on earth. It is in the same chemical family as oxygen, sulfur, selenium, and polonium (the chalcogens).

When crystalline, tellurium is silvery-white and when it is in its pure state it has a metallic luster. This is a brittle and easily pulverized metalloid. Amorphous tellurium is found by precipitating it from a solution of tellurous or telluric acid (Te(OH)6). However, there is some debate whether this form is really amorphous or made of minute crystals.


Tellurium is a p-type semiconductor that shows a greater conductivity in certain directions which depends on atomic alignment. Chemically related to selenium and sulfur, the conductivity of this element increases slightly when exposed to light (photoelectric effect).

It can be doped with copper, gold, silver, tin, or other metals. When in its molten state, tellurium is corrosive to copper, iron, and stainless steel.

Tellurium gives a greenish-blue flame when burned in normal air and forms tellurium dioxide as a result.

Metal alloys

  • It is mostly used in alloys with other metals. It is added to lead to improve its strength and durability, and to decrease the corrosive action of sulfuric acid.
  • When added to stainless steel and copper it makes these metals more workable. It is alloyed into cast iron for chill control.

Other uses:

High purity metalorganics of both selenium and tellurium are used in the semiconductor industry, and are prepared by adduct purification.

Semiconductor and electronic industry uses:


Tellurium (Latin tellus meaning "earth") was discovered in 1782 by the Hungarian Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein (Müller Ferenc) in Nagyszeben (now, Sibiu) Transylvania. In 1789, another Hungarian scientist, Pál Kitaibel, also discovered the element independently, but later he gave the credit to Müller. In 1798, it was named by Martin Heinrich Klaproth who earlier isolated it.

Tellurium was used as a chemical bonder in the making of the outer shell of the first atom bomb. The 1960s brought growth in thermoelectric applications for tellurium, as well as its use in free-machining steel, which became the dominant use.


With an abundance in the Earth's crust even lower than platinum, tellurium is, apart from the precious metals, the rarest stable solid element in the earth's crust. Its abundance in the Earth's crust is 1 to 5 ppb, compared with 5 to 37 ppb for platinum. By comparison, even the rarest of the lanthanides have crustal abundances of 500 ppb.

The extreme rarity of tellurium in the Earth's crust is not a reflection of its cosmic abundance, which is in fact greater than that of rubidium , even though rubidium is ten thousand times more abundant in the Earth's crust. Rather, the extraordinarily low abundance of tellurium on Earth results from the fact that, during the formation of the Earth, the stable form of elements in the absence of oxygen and water was controlled by the oxidation and reduction of hydrogen. Under this scenario elements such as tellurium which form volatile hydrides were severely depleted during the formation of the Earth's crust through evaporation. Tellurium and selenium are the heavy elements most depleted in the Earth's crust by this process.

Tellurium is sometimes found in its native (elemental) form, but is more often found as the tellurides of gold (calaverite, krennerite, petzite, sylvanite, and others). Tellurium compounds are the only chemical compounds of gold found in nature, but tellurium itself (unlike gold) is also found combined with other elements (in metallic salts). The principal source of tellurium is from anode sludges produced during the electrolytic refining of blister copper. It is a component of dusts from blast furnace refining of lead. Treatment of 500 tons of copper ore typically yields one pound of tellurium. Tellurium is produced mainly in the US, Canada, Peru, and Japan. See here

Commercial-grade tellurium is usually marketed as minus 200-mesh powder but is also available as slabs, ingots, sticks, or lumps. The year-end price for tellurium in 2000 was US$14 per pound. In recent years, tellurium price was driven up by increased demand and limited supply, reaching as high as US$100 per pound in 2006. See also here

See also: Telluride, Colorado, Telluride minerals


Tellurium is in the same series as sulfur and selenium and forms similar compounds. A compound with metal or hydrogen and similar ions is called a telluride. Gold and silver tellurides are considered good ores. Compounds with tellurate ions complexes TeO42- or TeO66- are known as tellurates. Also tellurites TeO32-. Also tellurols –TeH, named with prefix tellanyl- or suffix -tellurol.
See also: Tellurium compounds


There are 30 known isotopes of tellurium with atomic masses that range from 108 to 137. Naturally found tellurium consists of eight isotopes (listed in the table to the right); three of them are observed to be radioactive. 128Te has the longest known half-life, 2.2×1024 years, among all radioactive isotopes.


Tellurium and tellurium compounds should be considered to be mildly toxic and need to be handled with care.

Acute poisoning is rare. Tellurium is not reported to be carcinogenic.

Humans exposed to as little as 0.01 mg/m3 or less in air develop "tellurium breath", which has a garlic-like odor. The garlic odor that is associated with human intake of tellurium compounds is caused from the tellurium being metabolized by the body. When the body metabolizes tellurium in any oxidation state, the tellurium gets converted into dimethyl telluride. Dimethyl telluride is volatile and produces the garlic-like smell. Even though the metabolic pathways of tellurium are not known, it is generally assumed that they resemble those of the more extensively studied selenium, because the final methylated metabolic products of the two elements are similar.


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