The New Precious Metals

Plumer worries about the availability of elements used in high-tech manufacturing, some of which are irreplaceable:

Situations vary widely. Some elements do have easy substitutes. For instance, 54 percent of the world’s palladium is used as a catalyst to control emissions from vehicle exhaust. But if we ran short of palladium, we could still swap in platinum and get similar results. Or: Roughly 88 percent of the world’s titanium is used to create white pigment for paints, plastics, and paper. But in a pinch, we could substitute talc.

Other metals, however, have no ready substitutes. Rhodium is used as a catalyst to control nitrogen-oxide emissions from cars. Right now, there’s no alternative in the event of a shortage. Or: About 90 percent of the world’s supply of manganese is used as a deoxidizing and desulfurizing agent in steel production. Again, no substitute. That’s not to say it’s impossible to imagine a substitute — materials scientists are clever and markets are good at adjusting to shortages. Never say never. The study notes that there’s plenty of ongoing research into things like advanced composite materials. But substitution can be a slow process and performance can suffer in the meantime.

Stephen Leahy warns that vast quantities of “e-waste,” not enough of which is getting recycled, are making future shortages ever more likely:

E-waste is already a big problem. According to a new report, in 2012, every man, woman, and child in the US hauled a 66 lbs. bag of e-waste to the curb. That’s six times more than someone in China, and ten times the average Indian’s haul. “E-waste is exploding. I hope people will re-think their purchases of e-toys, tablets, and such this Christmas,” said not a particularly-grinchy Ruediger Kuehr, the Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem Initiative, which did the forecast. “Re-think” means consider where the device is going to end up when its day is done.

Lily Hay Newman focuses on the environmental consequences of e-waste, especially in the developing world:

E-waste is an environmental and health concern because it can cause heavy metals and other toxic substances to contaminate soil and water. Additionally, people looking to recover precious metals or other parts sometimes scavenge and break down devices that were not disposed of properly, and in the process they can release toxins into the air. As the Guardian points out, Interpol also released a statement last month indicating that e-waste from industrialized countries is being illegally unloaded on developing nations. Interpol is initiating criminal investigations into 40 companies, citing agent reports that for every three containers being checked on their way out of the EU, one holds some type of illegal e-waste. Exporting old electronics is not necessarily illegal if they are being repurposed or reused in some way, but Interpol says that much of the “exporting” going on is really tantamount to dumping.