Sunday, January 18, 2009

Limits to growth: rare elements

An article from the New Scientist, first published in May 2007, discusses another challenge to our current way of living: modern technology's dependence on rapidly-shrinking supplies of rare earths. (htp: Paddington)

Greens take turn this into a message about reuse and non-use; selfish investors may consider the implications for funds specialising in industrial metals, metal recovery companies and associated technology.


hatfield girl said...

Are rare earths rare? I had thought, vaguely that there's a lot of rare earths about but the processing is fairly technically advanced. If there is more demand it's not a matter of sourcing but treating, which is easier to cope with.

Sackerson said...

Hi, HG: according to the article, some vital elements are in very short supply indeed, and are essential to information technology. But what with your plough and powder and shot, you in north Italy should continue to eat, as lomg as you keep the starving rabble away.

On the brighter side, there is now a powerful incentive to alter patterns of use (e.g. silver should not be needed so much for photography now, since digital) and improve recovery of precious metals from defunct equipment and the environment generally.

A worrying point in the article is that there is much secrecy about the true state of supplies. Working with incomplete information is never useful.

Anonymous said...

Once again the NS shows just how far it has succumbed to universtiy socialism. Lets take some of the examples:-

Indium: not actually used to make gallium arsenide as suggested - (that would be gallium and arsenic!) is used to make Indium Phosphide a main ingredient for LEDS. Only tiny quantities of this material are used per annum and cost must be low, hence the lack of urgency in finding new sources - this doesn't mean that sources are running low.

tantalum. Used to make very small capacitors. Not popular for electronics as they have a tendency to explode under stress, so they have limited use. Where they are used they could readily be replaced with alumninium capacitors with only a slight increase in the physical size of the unit. I conclude there is no real danger to the modern world even if it did run out of tantalum.

copper: relatively abundant - prices increased for while due to massive increase in demand from China making it difficult to ramp up sources to meet demand - especially as demand was not expected to continue upwards so suppliers had no real incentive to find new supplies. large amounts also recovered from existing recycling programmes in developed countries. can be replaced by other abundant metals such as aluminium in many cases.

tungsten: not mentioned in the article but there was a scare that tungsten was running out about 20 years ago. obviously it never happened but maybe a few speculators got rich spreading that rumour. could be that speculators are only too happy to see new rumours being spread now that commodity prices are doing quite so well?

Sackerson said...

Very reassuring, Anon!

Sebastian Weetabix said...

I'm afraid this meme does the rounds every few years or so. Writing as someone who works in the field... if the supply diminishes, the price goes up. This is self-limiting since as the price increases, it becomes a sensible use of time/resources to find alternative materials and/or engineering solutions. Also, recycling becomes worthwhile.

Indium is a classic example (though to be pedantic indium is not a rare earth). It is not found in bulk deposits, it is generally made as a by-product of Ni, Pb or Zn ore mining and refining, and only about 100-200 tonnes is made every year. It has a few unique properties which make it an excellent engineering material - for example it remains ductile as low as 4K (-269C).

Back in the early 90s it was about US$100/kg and no one did much reclaim. Then LCD screens came in which used ITO (indium tin oxide); the price shot up to about US$900/kg in about 6 months, IIRC. Suddenly everyone was reclaiming & recycling... new sources were found, and the price came back down. Such is life in the metals business.

Don't believe the wicked speculators on this one. It's not like oil.

Sackerson said...

Thank you, Sebastian, informative and heartening.