The world, and your phone, is dependent on chemicals. What happens when they run out?
When you hear the word “elements”, you probably think of the Periodic Table. A large uneven grid, listing all the elements known to humans, organised by chemical traits, and shaped more like a couch than a table if you ask me. Here is where you’ll first look if you want to find out about Hafnium or Terbium or some other random element that most people have almost never heard of.
These days, you can also find out about most of these elements using a small, electronic device that fits in your pocket. And I don’t mean through Google.
The average smartphone contains about 75 elements, spanning nearly three quarters of the Periodic Table.
When you hear about smartphones and technology and microchips, and are asked to name one element, you’ll probably come up with silicon.
That makes sense, because silicon revolutionised the way electronics worked. It let people make really small printed circuits instead of wires, which is why your laptop, instead of filling two large rooms, is now about as small as a reasonably-sized periodic table.
What makes silicon special is that it’s relatively easy to get, conducts electricity well, and can still be manipulated at a tiny scale. And what about the bits that shouldn’t conduct electricity? That’s the other power of silicon: it can easily be combined with oxygen to form silica, its non-conducting avatar. It can also be manipulated so it conducts electricity in some ways and not in others, which is why it’s known as a “semiconductor”.
Silicon is by no means the only semiconductor that can be used for circuits. Early computers used to use gallium. Today, it’s not uncommon to find such things as antimony, phosphorous, and gallium included in silicon chips to help things along.
And if you want to make a chip that’s smaller, faster, and more durable that a silicon one? Use arsenic.
Scientists have made good use of the periodic table. A few centuries ago, there were only a few materials in widespread use by humans: wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, and silver to name the most common ones. Today, there are hundreds of elements in some commercial use or another, not to mention all the precise permutations and combinations they’re mixed into.
That’s great, because those new elements and compounds can do things the old ones couldn’t. But there’s a flip side: if those new things are too tightly integrated into our technology, there’s a tendency to become dependent on them. And, it begins to show.
In 2009, China suddenly announced restrictions on the so-called “rare earth elements”: things like dysprosium and gadolinium which are not easy to find. These elements are very thinly scattered across the planet, and then only in certain areas like Shandong, China.
And, they play a small but essential role in LED screens.
When China’s announcement came out, it caused ripples in the whole electronics market. Manufacturers were scrambling for alternate ways to get their materials. Prices began to go up.
Rare-earth elements usually show up mixed together, and they’re so similar, chemically speaking, that they’re hard to separate — but also different enough that you can’t substitute one for another.
Take europium, the soft evaporation-happy metal used to make “red” colour in digital screens. If you substitute it with terbium, it will turn YouTube green, show you a vegetation-coloured ‘N’ when you start your movies, and display Instagram in shades of turquoise.
Eventually, non-Chinese rare-earth mines stepped up their operations, while people starting buying more Chinese-made smartphones, and things went (more or less) back to normal. But it brings up the question: what happens when elements actually run short, not because someone decided to stop them, but because there were no elements left to bring out?
How do you get hold of an element? You can’t just find some lying around.
Gold, for instance, has to be dug up from special deposits deep underground. You have to watch out for cave-ins, crumbling walls, and poisonous gases that get released. (Unless your underground deposit is part of a bank, in which case you’ll still have to look out for security-guards).
Once mixed, elements still need to be purified. That means separating them from all the other stuff they’re mixed with. This can be a long and complicated process, in which unwanted elements are picked off one by one.
Sometimes, you get so little at the end that it’s hardly worth it. That’s why people never mine hafnium. Used in the control-rods of nuclear reactors, most of the hafnium in use today has come as a byproduct of purifying zirconium, in a kind of “buy one, get one free” offer.
Hafnium is one item on the “Endangered Elements” list. Created by the Americal Chemical Society (ACS) in 2015, this list documents which elements in danger of “running out”. That doesn’t mean they’ll vanish from the face of the earth, but they will get so scarce and hard to extract that nobody’ll want to put effort into doing it. It won’t be, as they say, economically viable.
ACL’s list marks seven elements as having a “rising threat” of running out, and another nine under “serious threat”, meaning they’re going to run out pretty soon — possibly in your lifetime. Surprisingly, the latter category includes Helium: one of the most abundant elements in the Universe.
That’s because, when it comes to staying on Earth helium is way too light.
Ever seen helium balloons fly up into the sky? Well, helium can do that even without balloons around it. And it doesn’t stop at the sky, but goes out, beyond it, into the space where it is so abundant.
The largest stock of helium is controlled by the United States of America, in the U.S. National Helium Reserve. Looking at current usage, some estimates say it could run out in as little as 25 years. This has implications beyond balloons: helium can get very cold, and is used for supercooling magnets in MRI machines, among other things.
What if you couldn’t have your brain treated because all the helium in the world had been blown up — literally — in balloons?
Can the element shortage be averted? One option is to find substitutes for the running-out elements, and use those instead.
When cobalt ran short in the 1970s, due to the civil war in Zaire, General Motors developed a way to make magnets without it. Similarly, shortage of rhenium made them find an alternate solution to gas turbine superalloys. However, that may not always happen.
In 2019, a team from Yale University led by Thomas Graedel did a survey of 62 elements commonly used in microchips, to see if there were any substitutes for some of them. The answer: negative. Not even for a single one.
That doesn’t mean all is lost. Instead of finding substitutes for the elements themselves, people could find substitutes for where to find them.
I’m talking about recycling.
Ever wished you could stumble upon a goldmine? There’s probably part of one right in your pocket. The average iPhone contains a third of a gram of silver, and a thirtieth of gold.
That may not seem like much, but the concentration is way higher than you’d get from mining. A tonne of iPhones would give you over six times as much silver than a tonne of silver ore, and three hundred times as much gold as a tonne of gold ore.
And that’s not ever counting the palladium, platinum, aluminium, copper, and dozens of tiny bits of harder-to-get elements scattered around the place.
So why aren’t people recycling their devices already? Well, abundant though these materials may be in your phone, they’re still mixed up together like a deposit of rare-earth elements, and hard to separate. It usually involves poorly-paid workers using dangerous chemicals to break open discarded electronics and get valuable bits out.
However, it may not need to be that way.
In 2016, material scientist Prof. Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales developed a plan for “micro-factories”. These small-scale recycling plants, about the size of a shipping container, are as automated as possible. High-voltage currents smash apart the dumped devices; circuit-boards are retrieved via robotic arm, and human contact is brought down to the bare minimum.
Prof. Sahajwalla’s idea is to have one of these units for every community, setting up a kind of cottage industry in mineral mining: except these mines will probe not deep underground but into your old, discarded phones.
Has Veena Sahajwalla’s plan worked out? Most companies are still mining fresh elements from the ground. They have got all their systems in place, so it’s cheaper to carry on rather than switch to a new process. The materials aren’t yet scarce enough to warrant a switch.
But maybe they don’t need to become scarce at all. What if people simply stopped using them so much?
Why do people change their phones? It’s usually because their old one breaks, or becomes slow, or the battery dies and it’s cheaper to buy a new phone than to fix the old one.
That’s what the Fairphone cooperative plans to change. Based in the UK, Fairphone’s concept is simple: build a phone whose components you can easily swap out and replace one at a time, and make it simple enough that anyone can do it at home. No more visiting expensive service-centres: all you need is a screwdriver.
Fairphone’s devices are guaranteed to be supported at least five years — which is more than you can say for most other manufacturers — and they try to make their components durable to last even longer.
This does cause some problems, because electronics designs change so fast. Even if there are no pathbreaking features, at least the plugpoint shapes will change so you can’t plug old parts into a new phone. That means Fairphone has to stockpile spare parts so they can still send them to you when manufacturers have moved to the “next new design”.
Which is convenient, because you don’t have to.
It looks like there are three solutions to “save” the elements, and each has its advantages and challenges. Substituting elements could work, but Thomas Graedel warns us of the difficulty. Veena Sahajwalla shows us how to get back what we’ve already used, though a large-scale e-waste collection system will need to come in place before it’s effective. And Fairphone helps us use only what we already have, though of course that won’t last forever.
In the end, we’ll probably wind up using a combination of all three solutions. And meanwhile, they seem to all point towards the same conclusion.
Don’t know where your new phone will come from? Then keep your old one.
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