Mobile phones gobble up scarce materials

August 11, 2014 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Mobile phones and devices are the fastest growth story this decade and today their numbers are measured in billions. However, the future faces challenges as many innovations from the iPhone to electric motors for hybrid cars require the use of materials — elements — that are scarce or difficult to obtain.

As demand for these devices continues to grow, the problem of dwindling critical element supplies must be addressed, according to a white paper written by eminent scientists. The product of the 5th Chemical Sciences and Society Summit (CS3), the white paper recommends focusing research on finding alternative materials and new approaches to technology development in order to prevent these elements from disappearing.

While the white paper might be somewhat dramatic is claiming that such elements will disappear, the problem lies in their current lack of abundance. As such materials are exploited and consequently become even more scarce, the cost of their use will soar, making mobile phone and other innovative electronic technologies more expensive, possibly even prohibitively expensive in some cases.

The white paper, " The Efficient Use of Elements ," is a topic of discussion at this year's the 248th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society.

Technology advances made in the past few decades are resulting in unprecedented levels of comfort and convenience, improved medical diagnostics and treatment, more efficient transportation and rapid access to quantities of information that, a generation ago, were unimaginable. Much of this new technology, however, is heavily dependent on the excavation and use of scarce elements. For example, smartphones contain a mix of these rare materials such as indium and platinum. And the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals uses elements such as palladium and rhodium.

The scarcity of these elements makes it difficult to manufacture innovative devices responsibly. One of the agreements reached in the white paper is the need for the development of materials that can be used to substitute for these rare elements. Research on alternatives, the white paper states, must be a priority area. If a solution isn't found, technology advances may be limited, creating social, political and economic challenges across the world.

The white paper discusses several approaches to resolving problems of material