And you thought we were just running out of oil. Think again. All around us are rare elements from the Earth; we use them in all sorts of products. LCD screens have a bit of indium; LEDs, lasers, semi-conductors and the solar industry use gallium, an element that can emit a small amount of electricity; and rhenium, a common element in jet engines, is one of the rarest elements on Earth. Many of Earth’s elements are running low, and a group of Yale researchers created this Periodic Table of Risk to illustrate how bad the problem really is.
Every day, items we use all of the time rely on the rarest elements on Earth and those elements come from small, almost unreachable places like Chile, Bolivia and the Congo. Yale researches recently took a look at just how much we are using elements that, even when they were discovered, were considered to be pretty rare.
The researchers created a Periodic Table of Risk. To make the table, the team took into account each of 62 metals that we use today, including each element’s scarcity, concentration in one nation, and the difficulty of finding suitable replacements. The resulting graphic shows elements that are at greatest risk in red and at lowest risk in blue.
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In the “old days” of the industrial revolution, metals like zinc, copper and aluminum were used a lot in manufacturing and were not then, and are not now, at risk. Elements used in today’s technology, like smartphones, medical applications and batteries, are hard to get, and some are byproducts of other mining processes.
Environmentally, the elements with the biggest risks associated with them are gold and mercury. However, supply limits are most important, the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains, for electronics and include elements like gallium and selenium. Any restrictions could put other metals like chromium and tungsten at risk, both of which are used for alloys.
Industrial ecologist Thomas Graedel stressed the need for better electronic recycling programs. “I think these results should send a message to product designers to spend more time thinking about what happens after their products are no longer being used,” Graedel said.
While electronics recycling might not be popular, one day the mining for such metals may occur in the landfills of America, instead of underground in Bolivia or the Congo.
Images via Martin Terber and Julien Harnels