/High-Tech can’t last: there are limited essential elements

High-Tech can’t last: there are limited essential elements

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is iphone-rare-earth-minerals.jpgThere are 17 rare earth elements in the periodic table. About nine of those elements go into every iPhone sold… and if China were suddenly to disappear from a map tomorrow, Apple would lose about 90% of those elements.  Source: Brownlee 2013.  

Preface. This long post describes the rare metals and minerals phones, laptops, cars, microchips, and other essential high-tech products civilization depends on.

Metals and minerals aren’t just physically limited, they can be economically limited by a financial collapse, which dries up credit and the ability to borrow for new projects to mine and crush ores. Economic collapse drives companies and even nations out of business, disrupting supply chains.

Supply chains can also be disrupted by energy shortages and natural disasters. The more complex, the more minerals, metals, and other materials, machines, chemicals, a product depends on, the greater the odds of disruption.

Minerals and metals can also be politically limitedChina controls over 90% of some critical elements.

And of course, they’re energetically limited.  Once oil begins to decline, so too will mining and all other manufacturing steps, which all depend on fossil energy.

The next war over resources is likely to be done via cyber-attacks that take down an opponent’s electric grid, which would affect nearly all of the other essential infrastructure such as agriculture; defense; energy; healthcare, banking, finance; drinking water and water treatment systems; commercial facilities; dams; emergency services; nuclear reactors, information technology; communications; postal and shipping; transportation and systems; government facilities; and critical manufacturing (NIPP)

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity, XX2 report

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Rare Earth metals are used in many products:

  1. Magnets (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Terbium, Dysprosium): Motors, disc drives, MRI, power generation, microphones and speakers, magnetic refrigeration
  2. Metallurgical alloys (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Yttrium): NimH batteries, fuel cells, steel, lighter flints, super alloys, aluminum/magnesium
  3. Phosphors (Europium, Yttrium, Terbium, Neodymium, Erbium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Praseodymium): display phosphors CRT, LPD, LCD; fluorescent lighting, medical imaging, lasers, fiber optics
  4. Glass and Polishing (Cerium, Lanthanum, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Gadolinium, Erbium, Holmium): polishing compounds, decolorizers, UV resistant glass, X-ray imaging
  5. Catalysts (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium): petroleum refining, catalytic converter, diesel additives, chemical processing, industrial pollution scrubbing
  6. Other applications:
  • Nuclear (Europium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Yttrium, Sm, Erbium)
  • Defense (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Dysprosium, Terbium, Europium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Lutetium, Scandium, Samarium)
  • Water Treatment
  • Pigments
  • Fertilizers
  • Fuel cells (SOFC use lanthaneum, cerium, prasedymium)

iPhones (Stone 2019)

200 million of iPhones are sold a year, each of them with 75 of the 118 elements in the periodic table, many of them rare, many of them sourced only from China.  The minerals mentioned in this article were tungsten, tantalum, copper, tin, gold, silver, palladium, aluminum, cobalt, neodymium, gallium, all of which produce toxic byproducts during their mining and the refining of metals.

And less than one percent of these metals are recycled, due to the how difficult it is to collect enough electronic devices to make recycling worthwhile and getting the extremely minute quantities of metals out of them.

Each element was extracted from ores using hands, shovels and hammers, heavy machinery, and explosives, then smelted and refined into metals before being molded, cut, screwedglued, and soldered into products that are stuffed into packages and shipped worldwide for sale. Every step in this production process requires fossil fuel energy.

Recycling is very expensive, and iPhones would need to cost $5,000 to recover the extreme costs recycling would entail.  And recycling also generates a lot of waste as acids and other chemicals are used to try to separate the various metals from each other.  Recycling also takes energy, and today it’s basically impossible to extract all the metals that went into a phone. 

Apple’s parts are soldered and glued into place before being fastened together with proprietary screws which makes basic repairs like swapping out a broken screen or replacing a dead battery a headache. Which makes it difficult for anyone lacking a half dozen robotic arms to tear apart an iPhone to recycle the components. This is why most  e-waste recyclers still primarily mainly recycle CRT TVs and other bulky, pre-smartphone-era devices.  They don’t have the precision equipment to take apart a phone or tablet which were made difficult to tear apart, and they can potentially explode during the process. 

For Apple, this may be a feature rather than a bug: Documents obtained by Motherboard in 2017 revealed that the company requires its recycling partners to shred iPhones and MacBooks so that their components cannot be reused, further reducing the value recyclers can get out.

Microchips: 60 minerals & metals

These are nearly as essential as fossil fuels to maintaining civilization, yet depend on 60 minerals & metals, chemicals, high-tech machines, etc., making them more vulnerable than any other product to supply chain and cascading failures.

While just 12 minerals were used to fabricate microchips initially, now over 60 different kinds of minerals are required (NMA 2017):

    • The U.S. is 100% dependent on imports for 19 different minerals and over 50% for another 43 minerals.  These trends are unsustainable in a highly competitive world economy in which the demand for minerals continues to grow and supply stability is a growing concern.
    • Many of these minerals are both rare and past peak production
    • Many of them come from only one country (single-source failure)
    • China is the sole source for many of these minerals, and other countries such as failed nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo are not a reliable source.

Laptops need 44 raw materials from 27 Countries (Ruffle 2010)

Laptop supply chain: Geographical

Aluminum, Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Beryllium, Bismuth, Boron, Bromine, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Europium, Ferrite, Gallium, Germanium, Gold, Indium, Lead, Lithium, Magnesium, Manganese, Mercury, Nickel, Niobium, Palladium, Petroleum, Phosphorus, Platinum, Refined Gallium, Rhodium, Ruthenium, Selenium, Silicon, Silver, Stainless steel, Steel, Tantalum, Terbium, Tin, Titanium, Vanadium, Yttrium,  Zinc

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Democratic Republic Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Israel, Japan, Kazahkstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Ukraine, USA

Source: laptop supply chain assembly process documented in Bonanni et al (2010):

We’re dependent on China for 100% of these metals and minerals: Arsenic, Asbestos, Bauxite, Alulmina, Cesium, Fluorspar, Gallium, Graphite (natural), Indium, Manganese, Mica (sheet, natural), Niobium (columbium), Quartz crystal (industrial), Rubidium, Strontium, Tantalum, Thallium, Thorium, Vanadium, Yttrium

Percent dependency on imports for these minerals: 99% gemstone 96% Vanadium 92% Bismuth 91% Platinum 90% Germanium 88% Iodine 85% Diamond (natural industrial stone) 87% Antimony 86% Rhenium 83% Barite 77% Titanium mineral concentrates 81% potash (essential fr agriculture) 78% cobalt 78% Rhenium 75% Tin 73% Silicon carbide (crude) 72% Zinc 70% Chromium 65% Garnet (industrial) 64% Titanium (sponge) 62% Peat 57% Silver 54% Palladium 49% Nickel 46% magnesium compounds 42% Tungsten 36% silicon 35% copper 35% Nitrogen (fixed, Ammonia: essential for industrial agriculture)

Eight Rare Earth Metals are used in hybrid electric vehicles

Source: Ree applications in a hybrid electric vehicle. Molycorp Inc. 2010
  1. Cerium: UV cut glass, Glass and mirrors, polishing powder, LCD screen, catalytic converter, hybrid NiMH battery, Diesel fuel additive
  2. Dysprosium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  3. Europium: LCD screen
  4. Lanthanum: Catalytic Converter, Hybrid NiMH battery, diesel fuel additive
  5. Neodymium: magnets in 25+ electric motors throughout vehicle, Headlight Glass, Hybrid electric motor and generator
  6. Praseodymium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  7. Terbium: Hybrid electric motor and generator
  8. Yttrium: LCD screen, component sensors

Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements (and platinum group metals) are essential for high-tech technology: i.e. hybrid cars, computers, cell phones, television — anything with a microchip, even toasters.  They are finite, mostly controlled by China (up to 97% by some estimates), the last resources are mainly in war-torn failed states in Africa, Afghanistan, etc., and vulnerable to supply chain failure.

To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today,” according to Thomas Graedel at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

So renewable energy resources like windmills and solar PV may not be able to replace fossil fuels, since there’s not enough of many essential minerals to scale this technology up.

There are no substitutes for rare earth minerals and metals.

Computer chips are dependent on 60 minerals, many rare, which is why this will be one of the first technologies to fail in the future as a series of cascading failures, supply chain breakdowns, and other problems arise when fossil fuels start to decline at exponential rates within the next decade.  Computer chips are also vulnerable to Liebig’s Law of the Mininum, since if even one of these 60 minerals is missing, the chip can’t be manufactured.

Since mining is one of the most energy intensive and polluting enterprises, the decline of fossil fuels will cause many mines to shut down, hastening the end of hi-tech products as needed rare metals — even common ones at some point down the energy ladder — are no longer available. We mined the highest concentration ores at a time when fossil fuels were plentiful, now we’re down to low-grade ore at a time when the RATE of fossil fuel extraction is about to exponentially decline.

China controls many of these rare metals, Russia has 80% of palladium supplies, another potential source of supply chain breakdowns if they’re withheld from world markets.

Why are rare metals rare?

By and large they make up a few parts per billion of Earth’s crust, and we don’t know where they are, according to Murray Hitzman, an economic geologist at the Colorado School of Mines.  Some of these minerals are byproducts of mining for aluminium, zinc and copper.

An element’s price isn’t the only problem. The rare earth group of elements, to which many of the most technologically critical belong, are generally found together in ores that also contain small amounts of radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. In 1998, chemical processing of these ores was suspended at the only US mine for rare earth elements in Mountain Pass, California, due to environmental concerns associated with these radioactive contaminants. The mine is expected to reopen with improved safeguards later this year, but until then the world is dependent on China for nearly all its rare-earth supplies. Since 2005, China has been placing increasingly stringent limits on exports, citing demand from its own burgeoning manufacturing industries.

That means politicians hoping to wean the west off its ruinous oil dependence are in for a nasty surprise: new and greener technologies are hardly a recipe for self-sufficiency.

So what can we do? Finding more readily available materials that perform the same technological tricks not likely, says Karl Gschneidner, a metallurgist at the DoE’s Ames Laboratory. Europium has been used to generate red light in televisions for almost 50 years, he says, while neodymium magnets have been around for 25. “People have been looking ever since day one to replace them, and nobody’s done it yet.”

Technological concerns and environmental permits can delay extraction for 15 years after an ore deposit is discovered.

Cerium (see Lanthanum) is used in catalytic converters, oil refining

Dysprosium  has magnetic properties that don’t go away in high temperatures, essential for high-performance magnets in turbines, hard discs, and many other products. The US navy has used it in an advanced active sonar transducer, producing and then picking up high-powered “pings” underwater.

According to the US DoE, there are no suitable replacements, and so it’s the most critical element for emerging clean energy technologies. China is the only country with significant known deposits, Mines in Australia and Canada only have small quantities  Shortfall of dysprosium are expected before 2015.

Erbium  is a essential for the optical fibers used to transport light-encoded information around the world because they amplify light as it’s lost along the way.

Europium  is essential for lighting, so far no substitutes have been found. Everything from fluorescent light bulbs to laptop and iPhone screens relies on small but critical amounts of europium to generate a pleasant red color and terbium to make green.

“There are only 100 elements known to man, and we know what colors all of them produce, and those are the only ones that produce those particular shades,” says Alex King, director of Ames Laboratory, a rare-earth research center.

Europium and terbium combined help to produce the images on most television screens. Yttrium plays a supporting role as well.

According to the DoE, europium could be in short supply as early as 2015 – and terbium even sooner. For yttrium we have already reached crunch time: demand outstripped supply in 2010.

Gadolinium (Gd) is used in TV screens, X-ray and MRI scanning systems. In nuclear power plants it’s used in boiling water reactors to even performance.  Gadolinium oxide is also used to absorb neutrons as the uranium oxide fuels gets used up.

Hafnium  has amazing heat resistance so it was used as part of the alloy used in the nozzle of rocket thrusters fitted to the Apollo lunar module. It’s also used in the transistors of powerful computer chips because hafnium oxide is a highly effective electrical insulator. Compared with silicon dioxide, which is conventionally used to switch transistors on and off, it is much less likely to let unwanted currents seep through. It also switches 20% faster, allowing more information to pass. This has enabled transistor size to shrink from 65 nanometres with silicon dioxide  to 32 nm.  Such innovations also keep smartphones small.

Indium is used in touchscreens, PV thin films, and solar cells.  China has 73% of the world’s Indium reserves and refines half of it. China limits indium exports. The USA has been 100% dependent on indium imports since 1972.

Without expanded production after 2015, the DoE says reductions in “non-clean energy demand” will be needed “to prevent shortages and price spikes”. In other words, we might need to choose which is the more important – smartphones or solar cells.

Lanthanum   

  • Is the metal in nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in hybrid cars.
  • Used as a catalyst in oil refining to separate oil into products like gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil
  • Added to swimming-pool cleaner as an algae remover; it absorbs phosphate from the water, starving algae of its fundamental food source
  • camera and telescope lenses, carbon lighting in studios and  cinema projection

Lithium-ion batteries are unsurpassed in energy density, and dominate the market in laptops, cellphones and other devices where a slimline figure is all-important.

Yet they are also rather explosive characters: computer manufacturer Dell recalled four million lithium laptop batteries in 2006 amid fears they might burst into flames if overheated. That risk makes them unsuitable for use in electric and hybrid electric cars, leaving the market to the less explosion-prone nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

This is where lanthanum and cerium come in. They are the main components of a “mischmetal” mixture of rare earth elements that makes up the nickel-metal-hydride battery’s negative electrode. The increased demand for electric cars, and the elements’ subsidiary roles as phosphorescents in energy-saving light bulbs, place lanthanum and cerium on the US DoE’s short-term “near-critical” list for green technologies – a position also assumed by lithium in the medium term.

Neodymium (Nd) 

  • Used in magnets in generators in wind turbines, hybrid cars, laptops, loudspeakers, and computer hard drives
  • Used in high-temp dry film lubricant that works at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Used in welding goggles to cut out the yellow-green wavelength of light, which would burn your retina

Neodymium is used in the magnets that keep the motors of both wind turbines and electric cars turning. When mixed with iron and boron, neodymium makes magnets 12 times stronger than conventional iron magnets.

These numerous uses make for a perfect storm threatening future supplies. In its Critical Materials Strategy, which assesses elements crucial for future green-energy technologies, the US Department of Energy estimates that wind turbines and electric cars could make up 40 per cent of neodymium demand in an already overstretched market. Together with increasing demand for the element in personal electronic devices, that makes for a clear “critical” rating.

Praseodymium (Pr) Creates strong metals for aircraft engines and in the glass used to protect welders and glass makers

Promethium (Pm)

Rhenium is used in compact fluorescent light bulbs, and is a byproduct of copper. It’s one of the scarcest elements, and helps steel retain its shape and hardness even under extreme force and high temperatures.

Samarium (Sm)

Scandium (Sc)

Technetium is very rare because technetium, though present within uranium ores in Earth’s crust, quickly falls apart through radioactive decay. Globally, around 30 million medical procedures involving technetium are performed each year. But two new Canadian reactors which were to secure supplies of technetium and other medical isotopes have been mothballed. So it questionable whether these procedures can continue at the same rate (New Scientist, 16 January 2010, p 30). For now, a handful of aging reactors supplies the world’s hospitals.

Tellurium  In 2009, solar cells made from thin films of cadmium telluride became the first to undercut bulky silicon panels in cost per watt of electricity generating capacity. That points to a cheaper future for solar power – perhaps.

Both cadmium and tellurium are mining by-products – cadmium from zinc, and tellurium from copper. Cadmium’s toxicity means it is in plentiful supply: zinc producers are obliged to remove it during refining, and it has precious few other uses.

For tellurium, the situation is reversed. Because the global market for the element has been minute compared with that for copper – some $100 million against over $100 billion – there has been little incentive to extract it. That will change as demand grows, but better extraction methods are expected to only double the supply, which will be nowhere near enough to cover the predicted demand if the new-style solar cells take off. The US DoE anticipates a supply shortfall by 2025.

Terbium (Tb) (see Europium) Used in energy-efficient lighting

Yttrium (Y) (also see Europium)

  • Used in ceramic called yttria-stabliized-zirconia, or YSZ, which has the structural strength of a diamond and is used to make wind-turbine blades
  • Powderized YSZ is used as an electrolyte in fuel cells
  • Yttrium phosphors are used in fluorescent lamps

Related articles

References

BBC. 13 March 2012. What are ‘rare earths’ used for?

British Geological Survey. Rare Earth Elements. Natural environment research council.

British Geological Survey, World Mineral Production 2005. Available at http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/commodity/world/home.html

Brownlee, J. 2013. Read About China’s “Apocalyptic, Toxic” Stranglehold On The iPhone’s Rare Earth Elements. cultofmac.com.

Cheng, Z., Dedrick, J. and Kraemer, K. Technology and Organizational Factors in the Notebook Industry Supply Chain. Institute for Supply Management 2006.

Crow, James Mitchell.  20 June 2011. 13 exotic elements we can’t live without.    New Scientist

Dean, J. 2005. The Laptop Trail The Modern PC Is a Model Of Hyperefficient Production And Geopolitical Sensitivities. The Wall Street Journal.

Emsley, J. 2001. Nature’s Building Block, Oxford University Press. 12 Metric Tons of Ruthenium are mined each year out of a global supply estimated at 5,000. Ruthenium is used to harden platinum and palladium for electrical contacts and fountain pen nibs, and as a coating in hard disks. 75% of worldwide Polysilicon production is located in the US and Japan [The Prometheus Institute]. Silicon is available in almost every country, primarily in the form of sand.  http://pcic.merage.uci.edu/papers/2006/CAPSenglish.pdf

Metallurgical Plants Database for Google Earth. Available at http://www.pyro.co.za/MetPlants/

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Stone, M. 2019. Behind the Hype of Apple’s Plan to End Mining. earther.gizmodo.com

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Laptop supply chain: Geographical

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