back to article Gadget world's metals irreplaceable, say boffins

Nearly one-fifth of the metal elements present in modern tech products have no replacement candidates if supplies are exhausted, according to a study by Yale University. In fact, the survey of 62 metals important to modern technology finds that not one of those metals has an “exemplary” alternative to take its place if …


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  1. herman Silver badge

    Shortage scaremongering

    There is no shortage of ores of most of those mentioned metals.

    1. cirby

      Re: Shortage scaremongering

      No kidding - for example, world Yttrium production is 600 tons per year - with only about a 15,000 year reserve.

      Yes, fifteen THOUSAND years before we run out of the stuff in reserves we know about.

      They call these things "rare earth elements," but they're really not rare at all when you get right down to it.

      1. Steve Crook

        Re: Shortage scaremongering

        It just looks like the merchants of panic are up to their usual sales tricks...

        Even so, if there's a cost effective way to make this stuff more recyclable we should be doing it. As Timbo Worstall is always keen to tell us, there are slag heaps full of interesting stuff which can be extracted if there's a viable market.

        1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

          Re: Shortage scaremongering

          I read a report that said mining the old rubbish dumps in the US was now a cost-effective way of getting Aluminium. The report said that the weight of aluminium that could be extracted per tonne/volume of waste dug up was comparable or more than the volume extraced from bauxite mining. What's more, the cost/energy to separate and re-cycle the aluminium was less than that needed to reduce bauxite to aluminium.

          I don't think that will ever be the case with these other elements because of the tiny quantities involved compared to the volume of rubbish we make, and it would be nice to think that we actually recycled everything rather than burying it.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Shortage scaremongering

            Grind up the old phones and tip the waste into the nearest Rare Earth processing facility (the one next to the mine). They'd call the incoming waste stream a rich vein.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Shortage scaremongering

        They may not be rare, but they're hard to extract and hellaciously polluting during the process.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Shortage scaremongering

      I love the fact they've mentioned Magnesium, the fourth most common element in the earth and 13% of the planets mass and of it we use less than a million tons a year....

      1. Ronny Cook

        Re: Shortage scaremongering

        Not sure where you got these numbers from; from what I can see it's 7th most common in the Earth's crust and 3rd most common in seawater (excluding hydrogen and oxygen). It seems to be 0.129% of seawater, by weight. So it' definitely not rare.

        However, the chart doesn't depict rarity of elements, but the difficulty of substituting with a different element.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    I can hear the piano now.

    I can't wait until he segue's into "Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park"

    (If you have to ask, don't ask me.)

    1. Major N

      Re: I can hear the piano now.

      I remember being in France, with a friend of mine, heading along the high street in this small town , gleefully singing this at the top of our voices. Good times....

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: I can hear the piano now.

        Try singing it as you skip along the road into Regent's Park.

        UK Police have no sense of humour.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What you're telling me is that Tim Worstall is likely to start buying options on old city landfill property to recycle precious metals?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Um......

      And once that runs out, there's always seawater. Long before we've extracted what we want from that, we'll either be mining asteroids or be extinct.

    2. Tim Worstal

      Re: Um......

      Mebbe......I'm currently trawling the waste ponds of a uranium processor for stuff so city dumps look quite attractive really.

      From the paper:

      "It thus appears that society will need to pay more attention to

      the acquisition and maintenance of nonrenewable resources than

      has been the case in the past. Growing populations, growing

      affluence, and the materials diversity of modern technologies are

      straining the resource capacities on which we draw. The situation

      need not inspire panic, but should instead stimulate more diligent

      and more comprehensive approaches to the balance between

      supply and demand across the entire periodic table."

      As above, they don't seem to understand that there isn't any shortage of these various metals or ores so no, we don't have any supply constraints.

      My favourite example is from an old story in New Scientist. They stated that world reserves of hafnium would run out in 2017. They entirely failed to understand that we only produce Hf when we want nuclear grade zirconium. So, we end up with some 500 tonnes or so a year of Hf floating around. The other 24,000 tonnes available to us in the non-nuclear grade Zr we use each year is just never processed out. And there's tens of thousands of years' worth of Zr ores floating about.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Um......

        Nuclear-grade zirconium? I thought Zr was just for faux diamond rings; wouldn't making it nuclear-grade kind of defeat the purpose?

        Of course, my confusion might be caused by lack-of-sleep.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: Um......

          zzircon....sand, the ore. zirconia, the oxide (which can indeed be made into cute crystals). zirconium, the metal, used for making those fuel rods they're pulling out of Fukushima.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Um......

            So, its the sleep one...

            thanks for the clarification.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Um......

        "As above, they don't seem to understand that there isn't any shortage of these various metals or ores so no, we don't have any supply constraints."

        I suspect that if pressed they will deny any scaremongering and claim that their wooly description was never meat to mean that we might run out of the elements stated but that current production capacity is not enough to meet projected demand.

        In other words, they have delusions of a political career or have just bought shares in rare earth processing :-)

  4. jake Silver badge

    So let me get this straight ...

    .... Rare and wanted stuff is rare and wanted? This is news?


    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: So let me get this straight ...


      The bit about rare not meaning limited or in short supply in this context.

  5. John Savard


    I see that Tantalum, though, is greenish in color, meaning that substitutes for it are not too bad.

    Given how it's implicated in exacerbating conflicts in Africa, why aren't we already using them in that case?

    1. ChrisInAStrangeLand

      Re: Tantalum

      Tantalum is used in electrolytic capacitors, which will be very soon replaced with much cheaper and more plentiful laser scribed graphene. If you look at this list there are replacements for most of these elements. Despite being called a "rare earth", neodymium is in very very large supply, potentially millions of years, for permanent magnets.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Tantalum

        "Tantalum is used in electrolytic capacitors"

        More pointedly it's used in a specific type of electrolytic construction(*) but the demand for it as a percentage of all electrolytics shipped has been declininf for decades.

        (*) The advantage was much better ESR than spiral wound devices but a bit of lateral thinking about construction eliminated 90% of the difference years ago (offset the metalised strips, run the electrodes across the ends so they make contact every half turn and voila, huge self-inductance and high internal resistance wiped away "just like that").

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "if supplies are exhausted"

    Stopped reading article there. Entire commentary, facts and data is summed up in the above quote. :)

  7. Christoph

    Some of them are abundant

    Some of those are so abundant that there's not any near term problem, but not all. Rhenium is not exactly floating around the place.

  8. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad


    "Unsurprisingly, the study's authors say the tech sector needs to get much, much better at recycling the metals it uses, including designing products to encourage and enable recycling. ®"

    Amen to that. But better recycling is only half of the story - how about reducing the need for recycling?

    IMO, planned obsolescense should be either outlawed, or heavily taxed. Same thing with planned failures. Why on earth should CCFL tubes and lithium batteries be non-removable? I do have a good example at hand - an Epson LCD panel from 1992, where CCFL tube can be easily replaced, and indeed has been replaced. Certainly not the case with the later designs. Ugh. LCD makers deserve a serious taxhammer for producing more toxic waste than really necessary.

  9. TheDataRecoverer

    Never mind metals, what about helium ?

    How are we going to have great parties with daft voices when *that* runs out.....far more likely !

    1. cyborg

      Build fusion power stations, helium is a waste product. Problem solved!

    2. phil dude

      helium synthesis..

      I was at a party over TG and got talking to a neutron scientist. Apparently you can make helium-3 to order and they do, since they have to recycle all they use...

      This came as a surprise, but when synthesis is possible, it suggests the market may produce a solution...

      Other than that, it would seem that recycling would be prudent...


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: helium synthesis..

        Helium solution, that would be cool.

  10. Interrobang

    Because we said so?

    "... the tech sector needs to get much, much better at recycling the metals it uses ..."

    Why? Because scientists said so? The world runs on money; it will only happen if there is a financial imperative for these companies to do so.

    Worst case I can see would be that accessible ores of one more metals dwindle, resulting in higher mining and production costs being passed on to manufacturers. At that point, the damage is already done and the known reserves are nearly exhausted (but that never happens, I mean we've still got plenty of forests and fish stocks left, right?)

    If there really is a shortage problem to be addressed, it'll take governmental involvement at an international level to financially penalise misusue of (or incentivise frugal use of) the "endagered" metal. The worldwide distribution of these resources then becomes politically concerning:

    Scientific research alone is not a sufficient driver for change...

  11. tentimes

    Oil will run out first

    We have already passed peak-oil production, and when that goes it will have a hell of a lot more impact than these metals. You could probably make very, very little of a gadget without oil products.

    But we all have our heads in the sand about the oil running out ;)

    1. Goat Jam

      Re: Oil will run out first

      "We have already passed peak-oil production"

      Really? When did that happen? Or are you just making shit up?

  12. Amorous Cowherder


    Never mind your latest iGadegt, run out of magnesium how are the chav Boy Racers going to "bling-up" their motor's wheels? And what about magnesium-sulphate, no more anti-boil cream!

    1. Random Coolzip

      Re: Magnesium?

      I don't think they've made magnesium wheels for twenty years or more. Something about them being unquenchable if they catch fire. Plus, they're a b!tch to keep shiny -- much more effort than your typical chav would care to expend.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Magnesium?

      A lighter, stronger wheel isn't really bling, is it?

  13. Stevie


    T'ain't the tech sector that needs to up its recycling game - its the civic infrastructure.

    I have a number of lead acid batteries, NiCad batteries and a few lithium batteries that could use a good recycling plant. I cannot put these out for the standard recycling pickup because they are not plastic and not paper. I can take the lead acid batteries to a local battery dealer in theory, but the reality is that they won't welcome them or me if I do any more than a delicatessen will welcome even washed, boxed beer cans it sold me a week before that it has to take by law.

    There is a recycling plant. It is about seven miles from my house and is open during business hours weekdays. I commute to work and rarely am in my home during business hours on a weekday. When I am it is typically for a doctor's appointment or illness, neither of which leave me in the position of being able to drive to the town dump.

    Recycle a dead iPad? How? I can't even properly recycle a couple of Duracell AAs.

  14. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    I think the only one mentioned (and not a rare earth) that is getting quite scarce - or we are over-using, is copper.

    1. David Paul Morgan
      Thumb Up

      I once read...

      ... that the worlds biggest copper 'mine' was New York City

      and that we may have already dug up and processed more than what's left.

      memory is a funny thing.

      Seriously, we should be taking apart and reusing/recycling what we can from the plastic covered copper and aluminium cables to the more exotic materials in our gadgets.

      Anyone know of a good way to 'recycle' old VHS cassettes?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It won't matter how much ore there is for access, cost of mining, and refining blockages!

    You will want to add Silver to that list before long because the above ground strategic national stockpiles are gone, above ground supply is dropping faster than matching mining capacity is coming on-line, and it is used in such small quantities per goods item that it get throw away in the goods, not recycled like it used to be for photographic film!

    Silver is at very real risk of effectively running out faster than many realise; the sensible Silver to Gold price ratio should have stayed at 15:1, but didn't, so loads was used up at a ridiculously deep discount, so we could well see a 1:1 Silver to Gold price ratio, and much more expensive Electronics and many other goods!

  16. NoshitSherlock

    Little dab of optimism - a touch of hyerbole and hot air and all of that smothered with sarcasm

    Hey Jacque Fresco,

    Its about time, the poor guy is 97 years old its hard to argue with his assessment of our social insanity experiments we are living under today.

    This sure sounds like they are finally talking about doing a resource inventory assessment, venus city I pray is hopefully not too far behind...

    But I do admit I have one worry he's never addressed what will we use the tree's for when out monetary based economic system is replaced with a resource based economy. This could become a very serious problem and lets face it nobody is going to require the insanely huge quantities of wood pulp that the Federal Reserve System does when it prints all the fun fiat money.

    We might actually need to stop rolling out some of these new technologies that eliminate the requirement of paper or we could be setting the stage for the tipping point of planetary re-forestation as a whole that only occurred in planet of the apes series.

  17. Sirius Lee

    So the suggestion is that products are made more expensive to be recyclable when there's no shortage. Mmmm. Good idea. The report's author clearly didn't stop by their colleagues in the economics department.

    An alternative might be to create big holes in the ground into which the potentially interesting parts of electronic kit are dumped. Then in n thousand years the miners and geologists of the day will be able to locate rich deposits and process them when it become economically viable to do so.

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