Display of the periodic table of the elements complete with samples in the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Action needed to counter dwindling supplies of vital elements

Dwindling supplies of chemical elements critical for modern technology require a rethink of research and development approaches.

Many of today's technological innovations from the iPhone to electric motors for hybrid cars require the use of elements that are scarce, difficult to obtain, or geographically concentrated – China produces more than 90 per cent of the world's rare earth minerals, which are critically important for a host of hi-tech electronics.

According to the conclusions of a white paper presented at the American Chemical Society’s Chemical Sciences and Society Summit, research into finding alternative materials and new approaches to technology development is vital in order to prevent these elements from disappearing.

“Comprehensive, coordinated action is urgently needed to address problems of critical element depletion,” says the report, compiled by a group of leading scientists.

“The problem is global in scope and requires attention from government, industry and academia working together to forge a new approach to technology development that considers energy costs, environmental impact, and the complete use cycle of chemical elements required.”

Materials such as indium, platinum and copper, used in smartphones, and palladium and rhodium, used in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, are very scarce, according to the report, making it difficult to manufacture innovative devices responsibly.

One of the agreements reached in the white paper is the need for the development of materials that can be used to substitute for these rare elements. Research on alternatives, the white paper states, must be a priority area to avoid limiting technological advances, which could create social, political and economic challenges across the world.

The report also highlights other vital elements such as phosphorus and lithium that are fairly plentiful, but are under threat due to the rate of consumption and a lack of effort to effectively conserve or recover them.

A key part of any strategy will be recovery and recycling, the report says, as elements are a strictly limited resource, adding that it is also essential that these critical resources be used with consideration of the entire use cycle, from mining and manufacturing to recovery and reuse.

Incentives to encourage graduate students and early career scientists to move towards fields such as the development of new energy materials and non-traditional catalysts are also important to boost research in the area, the report says.

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