Metals Used in High-Tech Products Face Future Supply Risks

In a new paper, a team of Yale researchers assesses the “criticality” of all 62 metals on the Periodic Table of Elements, providing key insights into which materials might become more difficult to find in the coming decades, which ones will exact the highest environmental costs — and which ones simply cannot be replaced as components of vital technologies.

the criticality of 62 metalsMany of the metals traditionally used in manufacturing, such as zinc, copper, and aluminum, show no signs of vulnerability. But other metals critical in the production of newer technologies — like smartphones, infrared optics, and medical imaging — may be harder to obtain in coming decades, said Thomas Graedel, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Industrial Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and lead author of the paper.

“Some metals that have become deployed for technology only in the last 10 or 20 years are available almost entirely as byproducts. You can’t mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes. And they don’t have any decent substitutes.”

The researchers also analyzed how recycling rates have evolved over the years and the degree to which different industries are able to utilize “non-virgin” sources of materials. Some materials, such as lead, are highly recycled because they are typically used in bulk, Graedel said. But the relatively rare materials that have become critical in some modern electronics are far more difficult to recycle because they are used in such miniscule amounts — and can be difficult to extricate from the increasingly complex and compact new technologies.

“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,” he said. “So much of what makes the recycling of these materials difficult is their design.”

Read more: Study: Metals Used in High-Tech Products Face Future Supply Risks, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Decoupling of Economic Growth and Material Consumption is an Illusion, Researchers Say

“Metrics on resource productivity currently used by governments suggest that some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling). Using the material footprint (MF), a consumption-based indicator of resource use, we find the contrary: Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent.”

“By calculating raw material equivalents of international trade, we demonstrate that countries’ use of nondomestic resources is, on average, about threefold larger than the physical quantity of traded goods. As wealth grows, countries tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases.”

“Our findings call into question the sole use of current resource productivity indicators in policy making and suggest the necessity of an additional focus on consumption-based accounting for natural resource use.”

Read more: The material footprint of nations, Thomas O. Wiedmann, Heinz Schandl, Manfred Lenzen, Daniel Moran, Sangwon Suh, James West, and Keiichiro Kanemoto, in PNAS 2013. Open Access. Via Klimaatblog.

Tax Resources, Not Labour

“In our society, high taxes on labor drive businesses to minimize the number of employees. Resources remain untaxed, so we use them unconstrained. This system causes both unemployment and scarcity of resources.” Read. Via Femke Groothuis.

Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities

Historical statistics for mineral and material commodities in the US (since 1900).

Minerals Yearbook: an annual publication that reviews the mineral and material industries of the United States and foreign countries. The Yearbook contains statistical data on materials and minerals and includes information on economic and technical trends and development. The Minerals Yearbook includes chapters on approximately 90 commodities and over 175 countries.

Related: Materials = Energy.

Materials = Energy

Minerals scarcity

Following the intriguing but oversimplified graphic on materials scarcity published by New Scientist (a graphic that turns out to be 2 years old, by the way), this in-depth article at the Oil Drum Europe (original article here) gives a well founded look at the problem of metal minerals scarcity. Especially interesting is the link between energy and minerals:

“In case of unlimited energy supply, metal minerals extraction would only be limited by the total amount of mineral resources. However, due to the scarcity of energy, the extraction rates of most types of metal minerals will cease to follow demand. Probably the only acceptable long-term solution to avoid a global systemic collapse of industrial society, caused by these resource constraints, is a path towards managed austerity. Managed austerity will have to be a combination of changes in technology and changes in both individual and collective human behaviour.

Related: Historical statistics for mineral and material commodities.

Reserve base / Annual global consumption

How many years left

How many years left if the world consumes at today’s rate? Via Reddit.

See also: Materials = Energy / Historical statistics for mineral and material commodities.