Sunday, 8 December 2013

Gadgets could be at risk in future because of rare material shortages

A new report has warned that modern technology is too reliant on rare materials whose scarcity could drastically set back innovation. It is suggested that as more and more devices are manufactured, supplies of key elements, particularly metals, will be strained. Potential substitute materials are either inadequate or non-existent. One scientist called the findings "an important wake-up call". Andrea Sella, of University College London said that it was the first time the issue had been explored in such detail.

Researchers at Yale University, led by Prof Thomas Graedel, analysed the use of 62 metals or metalloids commonly found in popular technology, such as smartphones. It found that none of the 62 had alternatives that performed equally well. Twelve had no alternative, Prof Graedal found. The scope for serious disruption because of material shortages is increasingly troubling technology companies. Rare materials are expensive to extract, and their processing comes with considerable environmental concerns. 

Political factors also play a part. In 2010, China restricted the export of some materials, known as rare earth elements. It said this was because of environmental issues, but some observers noted that the restrictions had two distinct effects, the price of the elements increased fivefold, and Chinese companies were simultaneously given the upper hand in using the precious materials at lower cost. 

Natural disasters bring another unpredictable risk. In 2011, serious flooding in Thailand disrupted global supply chains as the country is a hub for hardware manufacture. Shortages of storage devices extended well into 2012 with hard-drive supplies the hardest hit. One report concluded, "As wealth and population increase worldwide in the next few decades, scientists will be increasingly challenged to maintain and improve product utility by designing new and better materials, but doing so under potential constraints in resource availability."

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