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Tech by VICE

There Are No Substitutes for the Metals in Your Smartphone

Not one metal has an ‘exemplary’ substitute for all its major uses, says report.

by Mat McDermott
Dec 3 2013, 10:55pm
Photo via Dillon K./Flickr

Our high-tech habits depend upon an increasingly complex supply chain of metals, a good number of which are in limited supply. And as our human population grows and becomes more financially affluent, we’re simply going to need more metals

Neither of these realizations is particularly new. What a new report coming out of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies shows is how few alternatives we have. The work, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lays clear the fact that few substitutes are available for so many metals critical to our gadgets, smartphones, computers, and vehicles. 

In short, as the researchers frame it, there is no plan B here. We likely won’t be able to replace many essential components in our devices without reducing quality, increasing cost, or both. 

That conclusion comes after the evaluation of some 62 metals or metalloids used in various consumer products, yielding the discovery that “not one metal has an ‘exemplary’ substitute for all its major uses,” and for twelve metals a substitute for each of its primary uses does not exist at all, or is inadequate. 

Included in that list of non-substitutable metals are copper, chromium, manganese, and lead. Other metals or alloys with very low potential for substitutability: Rhenium (used in engine components), rhodium (used to help control vehicle emissions), thallium (used in cardiovascular imaging), dysprosium (a rare earth mineral used in permanent magnets in computers and wind turbines), europium and yttrium (for flat panel displays), and thulium and ytterbium (lasers). 

The researchers rated the elements examined on a scale of 0-100, with a zero indicating that exemplary substitute exists for all major uses of the element and a 100 indicating that no substitutes exist. Image: PNAS

Study co-author Barbara Reck says bluntly, “Based on our findings, it is unlikely that substitution alone can solve potential supply restrictions for any of the metals on the periodic table.” 

Reck adds, “If we want to secure the future supply of these metals, we need to do a better job recycling them. This requires efforts at many different levels, from product design, to waste collection and separation, to recycling technology.”

It’s from here that the story of the potential substitution of metals in technology and their supply takes a turn towards the geopolitical. Not only are the rare earth metals required by gadgets hard to replace, many of them are concentrated in countries susceptible to conflict and corruption. Add to that the fact that such minerals aren't distributed uniformly, despite near-universal demand, which means the flow of metals is subject to fluctuations on the economic and political landscape.

That point is hammered home in the report:

The ore deposits that yield the metals used in complex products are not uniformly distributed from a geographical perspective. No country or region, in fact, has substantial deposits of everything; platinum comes largely from South Africa and Russia, copper from Chile and the United States, strontium from China and Spain, and so on. The consequence is that modern technology is dependent on resources from every continent other than Antarctica, a situation that increase the potential for geopolitical machinations as far as resources are concerned.

In other words, our increased reliance on metals for which there are as yet no substitutes is increasing the levels at which nations are ultimately bound together. This alone doesn’t decrease the likelihood of “geopolitical machinations” from time to time, although it may decrease the potential for one nation to gain dominance over the world's mineral supply. But as the report points out, getting the metals that are driving the economy means finding them at home, securing them abroad, or doing without.