Scarcity of elements in products like smartphones needs addressing, say scientists

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 10, 2014 — Many of today’s technological 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 grows, the problem of dwindling critical element supplies must be addressed. That’s the conclusion of 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.

The white paper, “The Efficient Use of Elements,” is a topic of discussion at this year’s the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics. It is being held here through Thursday.

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, platinum and copper. 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 scarcity, and suggests that a multi-faceted, global strategy will be necessary to avoid serious disruptions. A key part of any strategy will be recovery and recycling, because elements are a strictly limited resource. It is also essential that these critical resources be used with consideration of the entire use cycle, from mining and manufacturing to recovery and reuse.

The annual Chemical Sciences and Society Summit  (CS3) brings together some of the most accomplished chemists and chemical engineers from around the globe and challenges them to propose meaningful approaches to solving society’s most pressing needs in the areas of health, food, energy and the environment. The CS3 initiative is a collaboration between the American Chemical Society, the Chemical Society of Japan, the Chinese Chemical Society, the German Chemical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The symposia are supported by the German Research Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Science Foundation of China, the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the U.S. National Science Foundation.   

“The Efficient Use of Elements” is the product of the fifth CS3 meeting, held in Narita, Japan in September 2013. Over 30 chemists representing the five participating countries worked together to identify and clarify problems associated with the rapid increase in demand for scarce elements and proposed rational, meaningful approaches to resolving this challenge we all face.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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During the meeting, Aug. 9-13, the contacts may be reached at the S.F. Press Center: 415-978-3506.

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