How our technology obsession led to crisis for element mining

Written by: Greg Rhodes | Published:
Illustration by James Fryer

This March saw the 150th anniversary of the introduction of one of the most celebrated scientific achievements – the Periodic Table of Elements.

The brainchild of Russian scientist and inventor Dmitri Mendeleev, the Periodic Table is arguably the most rational and straightforward method to represent the known chemical elements according to their properties and atomic number.

To mark Mendeleev’s formulation of it, UNESCO has proclaimed 2019 The International Year of the Periodic Table. Timed with the milestone though is a stark warning that known reserves of some already rare elements face exhaustion, in part because so many are mined for use in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

A repurposed Periodic Table has emerged to draw attention to the looming crisis. Created by The European Chemical Society (EuChemS), it highlights which of the 90 naturally occurring elements go into mobile device manufacture and those in danger of running out.

Smartphones can include up to 50 elements, notes EuChemS, over half of which may give cause for concern in the years to come because of increasing scarcity.

With some 10 million smartphones discarded monthly in the European Union alone, EuChemS says we need to carefully look at our tendencies to waste and improperly recycle such items. Unless solutions are provided, we risk seeing access to many of the natural elements that make up the world challenged – whether because of limited supplies, their location in conflict areas or our capacity to fully recycle them.

Greater understanding and recognition of the risks that element scarcity poses, and supporting more efficient recycling practices within a circular economy, are all key factors in the equation of sustainability, it argues, as are transparency and ethical issues.

Hoarding

Part of the problem is that many of us hoard old devices in our homes, rather than selling them on or taking them to be recycled, says the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), which is conducting research to demonstrate the scale of the issue. Results are expected to be available later this year.

“We’ll be able to start producing some advice for government, manufacturers, retailers and individuals on how we can protect these basic elements better in future,” says RSC research lead Elisabeth Ratcliffe.

“The International Year of the Periodic Table is a great time to start thinking about recycling the elements as the issue has yet to enter the public consciousness.

“Until I began the research I was unaware how many rare elements are used in my mobile phone or other devices. It’s just not something we think about yet. Most of us are not recycling mobile phones and they are not made in a way that makes them easy to recycle.”

Ratcliffe’s concern is that they could all end up in landfill and not returned to the system, and inconsistent recycling policies for mobile devices are currently not encouraging us to change our behaviour.

Elements used in mobile phones also find application in products as diverse as aircraft engines, drill bits, hearing aids and pacemakers. They are irreplaceable in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and energy-efficient lighting – making them vital in solving the global energy crisis and climate change.

Ratcliffe adds: “Other applications still await discovery, while we are squandering precious reserves on mobile phones. Once reserves are depleted, our only option is to try and recover these elements from where we’ve used them – from devices that we’re hoarding or from landfill.

“So many of the Earth’s rare and precious metals are present in our electronic devices – mobile phones, Xboxes, Smart TVs. Most of what we need for modern technology comes from this part of the Periodic Table, where the elements are in short supply.”

Missing link

The Earth’s supply of at least 11 elements is predicted to be exhausted within 100 years. “Indium is one of the least abundant and may no longer be available to be mined within the next few decades – 20 years, according to some estimates,” says Ratcliffe.

“The element is particularly suitable for touchscreens and one of its compounds, indium tin oxide, conducts electricity, bonds strongly with glass and is transparent, hence its widespread take-up in devices.”

The compound is difficult to recycle though and current methods are environmentally unsound, involving dissolving everything in an acid bath. Many are now hoping chemical research will unearth a green solution.

Ratcliffe adds: “Manufacturers need to do something in the early stages to think more about device disassembly as well as assembly. Some are made deliberately difficult to take apart, using custom screws and extremely strong bonding agents to encourage early trade-in rather than repair, when devices still have a couple of years’ useful life left.”

Used devices have found second markets in developing countries, but they may stand less chance of being recycled there than perhaps in developed countries.

There are also ethical issues surround lifting some elements out of the earth. Tantalum, also scarce, finds ready application in tiny devices such as hearing aids and pacemakers because of its high conductance, and in manufacturing capacitors and medical devices.

Yet one of its key mining areas is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where gold, tin and tungsten are sourced. The country is a major war zone where proceeds from ore sales reportedly fund conflict, while slave labour is rife, raising human rights issues.

Bodies such as WRAP are researching options for recovering elements from our everyday devices, but as Ratcliffe points out: “It’s going to be a while before public awareness rises to levels that will impact recycling. We need a circular economy, but this in turn requires worldwide infrastructure.”

Raising awareness early in life

Of the 90 naturally occurring elements that make up everything on Earth, 31 are the irreducible minimum found in a typical mobile phone. Rare earth metals tend to be clustered together, so when significant deposits were discovered on the seabed off Japan late last year, the find was hailed as an important one in helping shore up supply.

David Cole-Hamilton, emeritus professor of St Andrews University, who led the team tasked with repurposing it, says: “Most of the elements in question are found in many places on Earth but in small quantities.

“Indium, for example, is very thinly dispersed and can be isolated as a by-product in processing zinc ore, but estimates place remaining zinc reserves at 20 years’ worth of indium, if we fail to recycle any of the indium from mobile devices. After that, it would have to be mined from ores where its abundance is even less.”

That churn rate throws up worrying statistics. In the UK, 1.5 million phones are bought every month, in Europe 10 million and in the US 12 million.

“These are truly startling figures and indicate the scale of the problem,” Cole-Hamilton adds. “How many end up in a drawer or in the Third World?”

Fresh alternatives

“Two avenues are open to us,” Cole-Hamilton says. “First, we need to rethink our use of mobile phones, to replace them less often, and batteries in these devices need to be more easily accessed to allow owners to replace them when the battery life is finished. Making phones more modular would enable us to replace components.

“Second, establishing a proper scheme under which owners can hand in their old phones to a reliable recycling source. We haven’t really considered all this yet, nor the pollution aspect of discarding old mobile phones and other devices to landfill.”

Casting an eye at mobile device manufacturers, he adds: “Platinum and palladium, routinely used in vehicle exhaust catalysers, are returned to metals processor Johnson Matthey for reprocessing and extraction of the elements they contain.

“Chemical companies have to look to similar measures for mobile phones to help prevent them being discarded at the roadside in Africa or used to extract their gold by dissolving them in acid, often using child labour.”

Responsibility cannot be laid solely at their door, however, as Ratcliffe concludes. “Much of the burden of responsibility lies with product designers to make devices more amenable to recycling in the first place.”


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