Tellurium is a chemical element with the symbol Te and atomic number 52. It is a brittle, mildly toxic, rare, silver-white metalloid. Tellurium is chemically related to selenium and sulfur, all three of which are chalcogens. It is occasionally found in native form as elemental crystals. Tellurium is far more common in the Universe as a whole than on Earth. Its extreme rarity in the Earth's crust, comparable to that of platinum, is due partly to its formation of a volatile hydride that caused tellurium to be lost to space as a gas during the hot nebular formation of Earth,[7] and partly to tellurium's low affinity for oxygen, which causes it to bind preferentially to other chalcophiles in dense minerals that sink into the core.

Tellurium, 52Te
Pronunciation/tɪˈljʊəriəm/ (tə-LEWR-ee-əm)
Appearancesilvery lustrous gray (crystalline),
brown-black powder (amorphous)
Standard atomic weight Ar, std(Te)127.60(3)[1]
Tellurium in the periodic table
Hydrogen Helium
Lithium Beryllium Boron Carbon Nitrogen Oxygen Fluorine Neon
Sodium Magnesium Aluminium Silicon Phosphorus Sulfur Chlorine Argon
Potassium Calcium Scandium Titanium Vanadium Chromium Manganese Iron Cobalt Nickel Copper Zinc Gallium Germanium Arsenic Selenium Bromine Krypton
Rubidium Strontium Yttrium Zirconium Niobium Molybdenum Technetium Ruthenium Rhodium Palladium Silver Cadmium Indium Tin Antimony Tellurium Iodine Xenon
Caesium Barium Lanthanum Cerium Praseodymium Neodymium Promethium Samarium Europium Gadolinium Terbium Dysprosium Holmium Erbium Thulium Ytterbium Lutetium Hafnium Tantalum Tungsten Rhenium Osmium Iridium Platinum Gold Mercury (element) Thallium Lead Bismuth Polonium Astatine Radon
Francium Radium Actinium Thorium Protactinium Uranium Neptunium Plutonium Americium Curium Berkelium Californium Einsteinium Fermium Mendelevium Nobelium Lawrencium Rutherfordium Dubnium Seaborgium Bohrium Hassium Meitnerium Darmstadtium Roentgenium Copernicium Nihonium Flerovium Moscovium Livermorium Tennessine Oganesson


Atomic number (Z)52
Groupgroup 16 (chalcogens)
Periodperiod 5
Block  p-block
Electron configuration[Kr] 4d10 5s2 5p4
Electrons per shell2, 8, 18, 18, 6
Physical properties
Phase at STPsolid
Melting point722.66 K (449.51 °C, 841.12 °F)
Boiling point1261 K (988 °C, 1810 °F)
Density (near r.t.)6.24 g/cm3
when liquid (at m.p.)5.70 g/cm3
Heat of fusion17.49 kJ/mol
Heat of vaporization114.1 kJ/mol
Molar heat capacity25.73 J/(mol·K)
Vapor pressure
P (Pa) 1 10 100 1 k 10 k 100 k
at T (K)   (775) (888) 1042 1266
Atomic properties
Oxidation states−2, −1, +1, +2, +3, +4, +5, +6 (a mildly acidic oxide)
ElectronegativityPauling scale: 2.1
Ionization energies
  • 1st: 869.3 kJ/mol
  • 2nd: 1790 kJ/mol
  • 3rd: 2698 kJ/mol
Atomic radiusempirical: 140 pm
Covalent radius138±4 pm
Van der Waals radius206 pm
Color lines in a spectral range
Spectral lines of tellurium
Other properties
Natural occurrenceprimordial
Crystal structure trigonal[2]
Speed of sound thin rod2610 m/s (at 20 °C)
Thermal expansion18 µm/(m·K)[3] (at r.t.)
Thermal conductivity1.973.38 W/(m·K)
Magnetic orderingdiamagnetic[4]
Magnetic susceptibility39.5·10−6 cm3/mol (298 K)[5]
Young's modulus43 GPa
Shear modulus16 GPa
Bulk modulus65 GPa
Mohs hardness2.25
Brinell hardness180–270 MPa
CAS Number13494-80-9
Namingafter Roman Tellus, deity of the Earth
DiscoveryFranz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein (1782)
First isolationMartin Heinrich Klaproth
Main isotopes of tellurium
Iso­tope Abun­dance Half-life (t1/2) Decay mode Pro­duct
120Te 0.09% stable
121Te syn 16.78 d ε 121Sb
122Te 2.55% stable
123Te 0.89%[6] stable
124Te 4.74% stable
125Te 7.07% stable
126Te 18.84% stable
127Te syn 9.35 h β 127I
128Te 31.74% 2.2×1024 y ββ 128Xe
129Te syn 69.6 min β 129I
130Te 34.08% 7.9×1020 y ββ 130Xe

Tellurium-bearing compounds were first discovered in 1782 in a gold mine in Kleinschlatten, Transylvania (now Zlatna, Romania) by Austrian mineralogist Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein, although it was Martin Heinrich Klaproth who named the new element in 1798 after the Latin word for "earth", tellus. Gold telluride minerals are the most notable natural gold compounds. However, they are not a commercially significant source of tellurium itself, which is normally extracted as a by-product of copper and lead production.

Commercially, the primary use of tellurium is copper (tellurium copper) and steel alloys, where it improves machinability. Applications in CdTe solar panels and cadmium telluride semiconductors also consume a considerable portion of tellurium production. Tellurium is considered a technology-critical element.

Tellurium has no biological function, although fungi can use it in place of sulfur and selenium in amino acids such as tellurocysteine and telluromethionine.[8] In humans, tellurium is partly metabolized into dimethyl telluride, (CH3)2Te, a gas with a garlic-like odor exhaled in the breath of victims of tellurium exposure or poisoning.


Physical properties

Tellurium has two allotropes, crystalline and amorphous. When crystalline, tellurium is silvery-white with a metallic luster. It is a brittle and easily pulverized metalloid. Amorphous tellurium is a black-brown powder prepared by precipitating it from a solution of tellurous acid or telluric acid (Te(OH)6).[9] Tellurium is a semiconductor that shows a greater electrical conductivity in certain directions depending on atomic alignment; the conductivity increases slightly when exposed to light (photoconductivity).[10] When molten, tellurium is corrosive to copper, iron, and stainless steel. Of the chalcogens (oxygen-family elements), tellurium has the highest melting and boiling points, at 722.66 K (841.12 °F) and 1,261 K (1,810 °F), respectively.[11]

Chemical properties

Tellurium adopts a polymeric structure consisting of zig-zag chains of Te atoms. This gray material resists oxidation by air and is not volatile.


Naturally occurring tellurium has eight isotopes. Six of those isotopes, 120Te, 122Te, 123Te, 124Te, 125Te, and 126Te, are stable. The other two, 128Te and 130Te, have been found to be slightly radioactive,[12][13][14] with extremely long half-lives, including 2.2 × 1024 years for 128Te. This is the longest known half-life among all radionuclides[15] and is about 160 trillion (1012) times the age of the known universe. Stable isotopes comprise only 33.2% of naturally occurring tellurium.

A further 31 artificial radioisotopes of tellurium are known, with atomic masses ranging from 104 to 142 and with half-lives of 19 days or less. Also, 17 nuclear isomers are known, with half-lives up to 154 days. With the exception of beryllium-8 and beta-delayed alpha emission branches in some lighter nuclides, tellurium (104Te to 109Te) is the lightest element with isotopes known to undergo alpha decay.[12]

The atomic mass of tellurium (127.60 g·mol−1) exceeds that of iodine (126.90 g·mol−1), the next element in the periodic table.[16]


Tellurium on quartz (Moctezuma, Sonora, Mexico)
Native tellurium crystal on sylvanite (Vatukoula, Viti Levu, Fiji). Picture width 2 mm.

With an abundance in the Earth's crust comparable to that of platinum (about 1 µg/kg), tellurium is one of the rarest stable solid elements.[17] In comparison, even the rarest of the stable lanthanides have crustal abundances of 500 µg/kg (see Abundance of the chemical elements).[18]

This rarity of tellurium in the Earth's crust is not a reflection of its cosmic abundance. Tellurium is more abundant than rubidium in the cosmos, though rubidium is 10,000 times more abundant in the Earth's crust. The rarity of tellurium on Earth is thought to be caused by conditions during preaccretional sorting in the solar nebula, when the stable form of certain elements, in the absence of oxygen and water, was controlled by the reductive power of free hydrogen. Under this scenario, certain elements that form volatile hydrides, such as tellurium, were severely depleted through evaporation of these hydrides. Tellurium and selenium are the heavy elements most depleted by this process.[7]

Tellurium is sometimes found in its native (i.e., elemental) form, but is more often found as the tellurides of gold such as calaverite and krennerite (two different polymorphs of AuTe2), petzite, Ag3AuTe2, and sylvanite, AgAuTe4. The city of Telluride, Colorado, was named in hope of a strike of gold telluride (which never materialized, though gold metal ore was found). Gold itself is usually found uncombined, but when found as a chemical compound, it is most often combined with tellurium.

Although tellurium is found with gold more often than in uncombined form, it is found even more often combined as tellurides of more common metals (e.g. melonite, NiTe2). Natural tellurite and tellurate minerals also occur, formed by oxidation of tellurides near the Earth's surface. In contrast to selenium, tellurium does not usually replace sulfur in minerals because of the great difference in ion radii. Thus, many common sulfide minerals contain substantial quantities of selenium and only traces of tellurium.[19]

In the gold rush of 1893, miners in Kalgoorlie discarded a pyritic material as they searched for pure gold, and it was used to fill in potholes and build sidewalks. In 1896, that tailing was discovered to be calaverite, a telluride of gold, and it sparked a second gold rush that included mining the streets.[20]


Klaproth named the new element and credited von Reichenstein with its discovery

Tellurium (Latin tellus meaning "earth") was discovered in the 18th century in a gold ore from the mines in Kleinschlatten (today Zlatna), near today's city of Alba Iulia, Romania. This ore was known as "Faczebajer weißes blättriges Golderz" (white leafy gold ore from Faczebaja, German name of Facebánya, now Fața Băii in Alba County) or antimonalischer Goldkies (antimonic gold pyrite), and according to Anton von Rupprecht, was Spießglaskönig (argent molybdique), containing native antimony.[21][22] In 1782 Franz-Joseph Müller von Reichenstein, who was then serving as the Austrian chief inspector of mines in Transylvania, concluded that the ore did not contain antimony but was bismuth sulfide.[23] 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 a thorough investigation that lasted three years and included more than fifty tests, Müller determined the specific gravity of the mineral and noted that when heated, the new metal gives off a white smoke with a radish-like odor; that it imparts a red color to sulfuric acid; and that when this solution is diluted with water, it has a black precipitate. Nevertheless, he was not able to identify this metal and gave it the names aurum paradoxum (paradoxical gold) and metallum problematicum (problem metal), because it did not exhibit the properties predicted for antimony.[24][25][26]

In 1789, a Hungarian scientist, Pál Kitaibel, discovered the element independently in an ore from Deutsch-Pilsen that had been regarded as argentiferous molybdenite, but later he gave the credit to Müller. In 1798, it was named by Martin Heinrich Klaproth, who had earlier isolated it from the mineral calaverite.[27][25][26][28]

The 1960s brought an increase in thermoelectric applications for tellurium (as bismuth telluride), and in free-machining steel alloys, which became the dominant use.[29]


The principal source of tellurium is from anode sludges from the electrolytic refining of blister copper. It is a component of dusts from blast furnace refining of lead. Treatment of 1000 tons of copper ore typically yields one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tellurium.

Tellurium production 2006

The anode sludges contain the selenides and tellurides of the noble metals in compounds with the formula M2Se or M2Te (M = Cu, Ag, Au). At temperatures of 500 °C the anode sludges are roasted with sodium carbonate under air. The metal ions are reduced to the metals, while the telluride is converted to sodium tellurite.[30]

M2Te + O2 + Na2CO3 → Na2TeO3 + 2 M + CO2

Tellurites can be leached from the mixture with water and are normally present as hydrotellurites HTeO3 in solution. Selenites are also formed during this process, but they can be separated by adding sulfuric acid. The hydrotellurites are converted into the insoluble tellurium dioxide while the selenites stay in solution.[30]

+ OH + H2SO4 → TeO2 + SO2−
+ 2 H2O

The metal is produced from the oxide (reduced) either by electrolysis or by reacting the tellurium dioxide with sulfur dioxide in sulfuric acid.[30]

TeO2 + 2 SO2 + 2H2O → Te + 2 SO2−
+ 4 H+

Commercial-grade tellurium is usually marketed as 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, the tellurium price was driven up by increased demand and limited supply, reaching as high as US$100 per pound in 2006.[31][32] Despite the expectation that improved production methods will double production, the United States Department of Energy (DoE) anticipates a supply shortfall of tellurium by 2025.[33]

Tellurium is produced mainly in the United States, Peru, Japan and Canada.[34] The British Geological Survey gives the following production numbers for 2009: United States 50 t, Peru 7 t, Japan 40 t and Canada 16 t.[35]


Tellurium belongs to the chalcogen (group 16) family of elements on the periodic table, which also includes oxygen, sulfur, selenium and polonium: Tellurium and selenium compounds are similar. Tellurium exhibits the oxidation states −2, +2, +4 and +6, with +4 being most common.[9]


Reduction of Te metal produces the tellurides and polytellurides, Ten2−. The −2 oxidation state is exhibited in binary compounds with many metals, such as zinc telluride, ZnTe, produced by heating tellurium with zinc.[36] Decomposition of ZnTe with hydrochloric acid yields hydrogen telluride (H
), a highly unstable analogue of the other chalcogen hydrides, H
, H
and H

ZnTe + 2 HCl → ZnCl
+ H

is unstable, whereas salts of its conjugate base [TeH] are stable.


The +2 oxidation state is exhibited by the dihalides, TeCl
, TeBr
and TeI
. The dihalides have not been obtained in pure form,[37]:274 although they are known decomposition products of the tetrahalides in organic solvents, and the derived tetrahalotellurates are well-characterized:

Te + X
+ 2 X

where X is Cl, Br, or I. These anions are square planar in geometry.[37]:281 Polynuclear anionic species also exist, such as the dark brown Te
,[37]:283 and the black Te

Fluorine forms two halides with tellurium: the mixed-valence Te
and TeF
. In the +6 oxidation state, the –OTeF
structural group occurs in a number of compounds such as HOTeF
, B(OTeF
, Xe(OTeF
, Te(OTeF
and Te(OTeF
.[38] The square antiprismatic anion TeF2−
is also attested.[30] The other halogens do not form halides with tellurium in the +6 oxidation state, but only tetrahalides (TeCl
, TeBr
and TeI
) in the +4 state, and other lower halides (Te
, Te
, Te
, Te
and two forms of TeI). In the +4 oxidation state, halotellurate anions are known, such as TeCl2−
and Te
. Halotellurium cations are also attested, including TeI+
, found in TeI

A sample of tellurium dioxide powder

Tellurium monoxide was first reported in 1883 as a black amorphous solid formed by the heat decomposition of TeSO
in vacuum, disproportionating into tellurium dioxide, TeO
and elemental tellurium upon heating.[40][41] Since then, however, existence in the solid phase is doubted and in dispute, although it is known as a vapor fragment; the black solid may be merely an equimolar mixture of elemental tellurium and tellurium dioxide.[42]

Tellurium dioxide is formed by heating tellurium in air, where it burns with a blue flame.[36] Tellurium trioxide, β-TeO
, is obtained by thermal decomposition of Te(OH)
. The other two forms of trioxide reported in the literature, the α- and γ- forms, were found not to be true oxides of tellurium in the +6 oxidation state, but a mixture of Te4+
, OH
and O
.[43] Tellurium also exhibits mixed-valence oxides, Te
and Te

The tellurium oxides and hydrated oxides form a series of acids, including tellurous acid (H
), orthotelluric acid (Te(OH)
) and metatelluric acid ((H
).[42] The two forms of telluric acid form tellurate salts containing the TeO2–
and TeO6−
anions, respectively. Tellurous acid forms tellurite salts containing the anion TeO2−

Zintl cations

When tellurium is treated with concentrated sulfuric acid, the result is a red solution of the Zintl ion, Te2+
.[44] The oxidation of tellurium by AsF
in liquid SO
produces the same square planar cation, in addition to the trigonal prismatic, yellow-orange Te4+

4 Te + 3 AsF
+ AsF
6 Te + 6 AsF
+ 2 AsF

Other tellurium Zintl cations include the polymeric Te2+
and the blue-black Te2+
, consisting of two fused 5-membered tellurium rings. The latter cation is formed by the reaction of tellurium with tungsten hexachloride:[30]

8 Te + 2 WCl

Interchalcogen cations also exist, such as Te
(distorted cubic geometry) and Te
. These are formed by oxidizing mixtures of tellurium and selenium with AsF
or SbF

Organotellurium compounds

Tellurium does not readily form analogues of alcohols and thiols, with the functional group –TeH, that are called tellurols. The –TeH functional group is also attributed using the prefix tellanyl-.[45] Like H2Te, these species are unstable with respect to loss of hydrogen. Telluraethers (R–Te–R) are more stable, as are telluroxides.



The largest consumer of tellurium is metallurgy in iron, stainless steel, copper, and lead alloys. The addition to steel and copper produces an alloy more machinable than otherwise. It is alloyed into cast iron for promoting chill for spectroscopy, where the presence of electrically conductive free graphite tends to interfere with spark emission testing results. In lead, tellurium improves strength and durability, and decreases the corrosive action of sulfuric acid.[29][46]

Semiconductor and electronic industry uses

Tellurium is used in cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels. National Renewable Energy Laboratory lab tests of tellurium demonstrated some of the greatest efficiencies for solar cell electric power generators. Massive commercial production of CdTe solar panels by First Solar in recent years has significantly increased tellurium demand.[47][48][49] Replacing some of the cadmium in CdTe with zinc, producing (Cd,Zn)Te, produces a solid-state X-ray detector, providing an alternative to single-use film badges.[50]

Infrared sensitive semiconductor material is formed by alloying tellurium with cadmium and mercury to form mercury cadmium telluride.[51]

Organotellurium compounds such as dimethyl telluride, diethyl telluride, diisopropyl telluride, diallyl telluride and methyl allyl telluride are precursors for synthesizing metalorganic vapor phase epitaxy growth of II-VI compound semiconductors.[52] Diisopropyl telluride (DIPTe) is the preferred precursor for low-temperature growth of CdHgTe by MOVPE.[53] The greatest purity metalorganics of both selenium and tellurium are used in these processes. The compounds for semiconductor industry and are prepared by adduct purification.[54][55]

Tellurium, as tellurium suboxide, is used in the media layer of rewritable optical discs, including ReWritable Compact Discs (CD-RW), ReWritable Digital Video Discs (DVD-RW), and ReWritable Blu-ray Discs.[56][57]

Tellurium dioxide is used to create acousto-optic modulators (AOTFs and AOBSs) for confocal microscopy.

Tellurium is used in the new phase change memory chips[58] developed by Intel.[59] Bismuth telluride (Bi2Te3) and lead telluride are working elements of thermoelectric devices. Lead telluride is used in far-infrared detectors.


Tellurium shows up in a number of popular photocathodes used in solar blind photomultiplier tubes[60] and for high brightness photoinjectors driving modern particle accelerators. The photocathode Cs-Te, which is predominantly Cs2Te, has a photoemission threshold of 3.5 eV and exhibits the uncommon combination of high quantum efficiency (>10%) and high durability in poor vacuum environments (lasting for months under use in RF electron guns).[61] This has made it the go to choice for photoemission electron guns used in driving free electron lasers.[62] In this application, it is usually driven at the wavelength 267 nm which is the third harmonic of commonly used Ti-sapphire lasers. More Te containing photocathodes have been grown using other alkali metals such as rubidium, Potassium, and Sodium, but they have not found the same popularity that Cs-Te has enjoyed.[63][64]

Other uses

  • Tellurium compounds are used as pigments for ceramics.[65]
  • Selenides and tellurides greatly increase the optical refraction of glass widely used in glass optical fibers for telecommunications.[66][67]
  • Mixtures of selenium and tellurium are used with barium peroxide as an oxidizer in the delay powder of electric blasting caps.[68]
  • Organic tellurides have been employed as initiators for living radical polymerization and electron-rich mono- and di-tellurides possess antioxidant activity. The tellurium compounds are used widely in synthetic organic chemistry for reduction- and oxidation-, cyclofunctionalization-, dehalogenation-, carbanion generation reactions and removal of protecting groups.[69] The organometallic compounds are intermediates in the synthesis of amines, diols, and natural products.[70]
  • Rubber can be vulcanized with tellurium instead of sulfur or selenium. The rubber produced in this way shows improved heat resistance.[71]
  • Tellurite agar is used to identify members of the corynebacterium genus, most typically Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the pathogen responsible for diphtheria.[72]
  • Tellurium is a key constituent of high performing mixed oxide catalysts for the heterogeneous catalytic selective oxidation of propane to acrylic acid.[73][74] The surface elemental composition changes dynamically and reversibly with the reaction conditions. In the presence of steam the surface of the catalyst is enriched in tellurium and vanadium which enhances the acrylic acid production.[75][76]
  • Neutron bombardment of tellurium is the most common way to produce iodine-131.[77] This in turn is used to treat some thyroid conditions, and as a tracer compound in hydraulic fracturing, among other applications.

Biological role

Tellurium has no known biological function, although fungi can incorporate it in place of sulfur and selenium into amino acids such as telluro-cysteine and telluro-methionine.[8][78] Organisms have shown a highly variable tolerance to tellurium compounds. Many bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, take up tellurite and reduce it to elemental tellurium, which accumulates and causes a characteristic and often dramatic darkening of cells.[79] In yeast, this reduction is mediated by the sulfate assimilation pathway.[80] Tellurium accumulation seems to account for a major part of the toxicity effects. Many organisms also metabolize tellurium partly to form dimethyl telluride, although dimethyl ditelluride is also formed by some species. Dimethyl telluride has been observed in hot springs at very low concentrations.[81][82]


GHS pictograms
GHS Signal word Danger
H317, H332, H360, H412[83]
P201, P261, P280, P308+313[84]
NFPA 704 (fire diamond)
Flammability code 0: Will not burn. E.g. waterHealth code 2: Intense or continued but not chronic exposure could cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury. E.g. chloroformReactivity code 0: Normally stable, even under fire exposure conditions, and is not reactive with water. E.g. liquid nitrogenSpecial hazards (white): no code

Tellurium and tellurium compounds are considered to be mildly toxic and need to be handled with care, although acute poisoning is rare.[85] Tellurium poisoning is particularly difficult to treat as many chelation agents used in the treatment of metal poisoning will increase the toxicity of tellurium. Tellurium is not reported to be carcinogenic.[85]

Humans exposed to as little as 0.01 mg/m3 or less in air exude a foul garlic-like odor known as "tellurium breath".[65][86] This is caused by the body converting tellurium from any oxidation state to dimethyl telluride, (CH3)2Te. This is a volatile compound with a pungent 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.[87][88][89]

People can be exposed to tellurium in the workplace by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, and eye contact. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits (permissible exposure limit) tellurium exposure in the workplace to 0.1 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set the recommended exposure limit (REL) at 0.1 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday. In concentrations of 25 mg/m3, tellurium is immediately dangerous to life and health.[90]

See also


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