Elemental risk: Securing the raw stuff of modern life

2019-02-28 11:10:07

By Andy Ridgway and Richard Webb (Image: Shutterstock) Your phone, TV and light bulbs would be duds without a host of hard-to-find elements you’ve probably never heard of. Should you be worried? YOU may have read about it here. You may have read about it elsewhere. Five or so years ago, the world was on the brink of crisis, one involving a group of chemical elements known as the rare earths. With exotic names such as yttrium, europium and dysprosium, they had become essential components of our fridges, televisions and smartphones – pretty much all electrical gadgets, in fact. But China, with a near monopoly on rare earth production, was slashing exports. Demand was about to massively outstrip supply. In the end, it was a bit of a damp squib. The price of some rare earth elements did soar to a peak in 2011 – and then dropped away again almost as fast. How this storm brewed, but never broke, is an instructive story about our use of Earth’s mineral resources today, and what that means for the future. Not so long ago we relied on just a dozen or so elements to make most of what we manufacture, ones with familiar names like iron, aluminium, copper and silicon, that are widely present in substantial quantities in Earth’s crust. Now, though, our ambitions extend throughout the periodic table. Like Michelin-starred chefs, we are combining this material menu in increasingly exotic ways. That gives us a new flexibility, but makes us dependent on some obscure elements found only in small amounts and in a few places. In this new material landscape,