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Scarce Raw Materials Could Affect Future High Tech Manufacturing

Future development of high technology devices could be limited by the availability of the raw materials required to produce them, according to a paper published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Yale University study was the first peer-reviewed assessment of the “criticality” of all 62 metals on the Periodic Table of Elements.

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“The metals we’ve been using for a long time probably won’t present much of a challenge,” said lead author Prof. Thomas Graedel.

“But some metals that have become deployed for technology only in the last 10 or 20 years are available almost entirely as byproducts. You can’t mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes. And they don’t have any decent substitutes.”

The research team found that “criticality depends not only on geological abundance,” Dennehy writes. “Other important factors include the potential for finding effective alternatives in production processes, the degree to which ore deposits are geopolitically concentrated, the state of mining technology, regulatory oversight, geopolitical initiatives, regional instabilities, and economic policies.”

While the study looked at recycling rates, “the relatively rare materials that have become critical in some modern electronics are far more difficult to recycle because they are used in such miniscule amounts—and can be difficult to extricate from the increasingly complex and compact new technologies.”