We’re Running Out of Some Rarer Chemical Elements and Our Consumption Habits Are to Blame

Source: European Chemical Society.

Our consumption of electronics and other technologies are not only endangering wildlife, but also our access to a variety of chemical elements.

 

Perhaps it’s a little biased coming from a chemistry graduate, but chemistry is a very interesting topic. As the study of matter, chemistry tells us a lot about the physical world in which we live. Through it we can learn not only about what is possible, but also the limits that exist; not to mention studying it increases your chances of becoming a real life Walter White. 

In trying to understand the world, the chemist’s most beloved tool is the periodic table. It arranges the elements in groups and rows based on their properties. However, in many ways it remains a simple representation. For example, the table doesn’t tell us anything about the abundance of the elements on Earth. In order to rectify this – and since 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table – the European Chemical Society has developed a new way of depicting the elements. 

Endangered species 

The major difference with this table is that it shows the relative abundance of the elements on Earth. In addition, it shows how endangered they are on the basis of how quickly we’re using them.

The chemical elements are literally stardust. Source: Nasa.

As you may already know, the chemical elements are mainly synthesised in dying suns. This means that we won’t be receiving a new batch of elements any time soon and have to make do with what we have; unless of course a meteor or some other celestial body crashes into the planet, but let’s put off praying for that one just yet. 

Modern technologies

So we have all of these elements which we’re using up, but how are we using them? Well that depends on the element itself. From the image of the periodic table you can already see that a lot of elements are used in smartphones. Some examples are cobalt (Co),  yttrium (Y) and gallium (Ga).

According to the Royal Chemical Society, cobalt is also used to make magnets or in jet engines where high temperature resistance is important; yttrium is often used as an additive to alloys, or in making camera lenses heat and shock resistant; while gallium is used in the solar panels of the Mars Exploration Rover and has important uses in blu-ray technology, not to mention it has the possibility to be used in carbon storage technologies of the future.

Strontium is used to create a red colour for fireworks.

Another element which is endangered but is not used in making smartphones is zinc (Zn), which is used to galvanise metals. This is adding a protective layer to metals to prevent rusting. Typically this is used for cars, street lamps and suspension bridges. Strontium (Sr) is used for giving a red colour to fireworks and flares, as well as for glow-in-the-dark paints. The final example I will use is germanium (Ge) which is used in fluorescent lamps and infrared spectroscopes.

While this was just a random selection, it’s quite clear to see that a lot of these endangered elements are being used for modern technologies. Though to be fair, some are only being used for cheap entertainment value.

Why are they endangered?

We’re aware that we’re using these elements when making these technologies. That means we know where they’re going. So why are they then endangered?

It’s complicated. However, one of the big reasons is the way that we consume electronics. In developed countries, a phone is on average used for 2 years, with a “high market demand for newer features and styles making phones obsolete prior to their functional lifespan”. Not only this, but mobile phone waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams.

In addition, recycling these things is not so easy, and tends to have quite a large impact on the environment. Most e-waste ends up in landfills and technologies which recover the valuable elements with minimal environmental impact are quite expensive.

A lot of our E-waste ends up in landfills. Source: Emmet.

In the west we also send a lot of e-waste to poorer countries. However there they use recycling techniques which are harmful to human health. Evidence also suggests that e-waste contaminants end up in food products which are exported. These would then enter the food chain via bioaccumulation.

Finally, a lot of people simply just hold on to electronics. This means that the elements are dispered in attic corners all around the globe.

A change in system 

However electronics aren’t the only issue, as proven by the other examples given above. The problem is more central to the way that we function as a society. We aren’t losing these elements through some scientific fault, but through the constant desire to have new things, no matter how temporary. A car for five years. A phone for two. A firework for twenty seconds.

Saying that, the consumer isn’t always the problem. The only reason I stopped using my previous phone, was that it would no longer support any apps. Although it is a smartphone, after four and a half years it was already obselete. It could no longer compete.

The system we live in needs an overhaul. We are becoming more and more reliant on technology, but we have no plan on how to sustain this reliance. And we need to act now to prevent losing such useful materials. Recycling and becoming a more concious consumer is a good start. But it’s not the goal. Preventing e-waste means diverting from a system of continuous growth. Living on a planet with finite resources, this is not something we should be doing, it’s something that we need to do.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.