Precious Metals In Your Cell Phone: Is Our Tech Obsession Leading to a Materials Shortage?

By Ajit Jha on December 6, 2013 1:50 PM EST

cellphone sim card slot
A modern computer chip uses over 60 different elements, some of which are rapidly being used up. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Our modern lifestyle leads us to take many things for granted. One of them is the continuous supply of gizmos performing ever better with increased efficiency. The core of these technologies has a basis in seamless supplies of materials. However, a recent study highlighed the possibility that a scarcity of these materials and elements used in making them is imminent.

According to the authors of the study, about a century to half a century ago less than 12 materials were in wide use including wood, brick, plastics and a range of metals. Today, a modern computer chip uses over 60 different elements to enhance product performance, according to the study. The authors explain the evolution of material complexity with an example of the "superalloy" metals used in aircraft turbine blades to which additional alloying elements have been used year after year resulting in increased efficiency, better performance, and reduced green house gas emissions. However, this design approach comes with a huge challenge of scarcity in face of increased demands.

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Resource economics, according to the authors, teach us that scarcity leads to increased exploration to increase the supply and development of suitable substitute. When the supply of cobalt was threatened in 1970s due to civil war in Zaire, scientists developed excellent magnets that replaced cobalt completely. However, this could be an exceptional case, and substitution in many cases could be difficult or impossible.

In fact, the researchers extensively studied 62 metals and metalloids in periodic table to identify any potential substitutes and their performance. Their conclusion is alarming, if not downright frightening. There is no substitute that performs equally well, and 12 of the 62 have either no substitutes or inadequate substitute. The 12 elements include "rhenium, rhodium, lanthanum, europium, dysprosium, thulium, ytterbium, yttrium, strontium, thallium, magnesium, and manganese." 

Knowing that, the research team then looked at the elemental "life cycle" — what happens to metals in modern society — in order to determine if we are actually using our limited resources efficiently. The answer, not surprisingly, was a strong "no. For example, they highlight the the Chinese nickel cycle, which was found to be in a state of high disequilibrium. In other words, over ten times the amount of nickel consumed in China is simply disposed of, and is not recycled. There are many other metals that see little to no recycling, as well. Some of the critical metals identified were rhodium, platinum, manganese, niobium, indium, and the rare earth metals.

As for the future of metal supply, the doomsday prophecies must be tempered with a realistic analysis. There's absolutely no doubt that demand for metals will continue to rise but no one really knows, by how much because, "shortage is determined by a complex equation involving demand, availability, cost of extraction and processing, technology improvement and substitutability — all of them influenced by the state of the economy," according to Roger Harrabin of BBC. The new finds are however, turning out to be dilute. Copper ores used to contain as much as 30 percent copper, but the current rocks have as little as 1 percent copper.

Photo above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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