Safe & Sustainable Chemicals Series
Securing Scarce Elements
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Published: September 2008
Many elements are used sparingly by the chemical industry, but that their use is small in volume compared with petrochemicals does not mean they are commensurately unimportant. These elements—either as metals or as chemical compounds—are critical ingredients for catalysts, electronic chemicals, metallurgy and alloys, and a host of other applications.
The estimated economic reserves of these compounds are of major concern. At current rates of extraction and with current rates of usage, many will be exhausted during the next couple of decades. Estimating remaining supplies has its pitfalls; increasing prices will require more efficient use of supplies at the same time that it may open more deposits to mining. Increasing regimes to recycle the product also will likely extend supplies of material. And of course, some users of these materials are looking for ways to do without these elements by substituting other materials or processes. In this latter situation, however, there are technical limits.
Twenty-three elements are examined in this report, all with reserves that will not likely last the century. The following chart shows those materials whose reserves are expected to last to no more than the middle of the century:
Factors affecting the existence of future economic reserves include most notably the growth of the emerging economies. Just as oil has become high priced as a result of increasing demand by the emerging economies of China and India, so too have the prices of many rare elements increased.
But the increasing use in new and emerging technologies also has its effect on the supply/demand balance. Perhaps no other element exemplifies this better than indium. Its primary use is as a conductive transparent coating material in the form of indium tin oxide (ITO). The replacement of CRTs with flat panel LCD and plasma displays in televisions and computers has created a significant demand for this material. Demand for this application has caused the price to soar nearly 1,000% over the last decade. Now there is anticipated use of indium in certain types of solar cells with promising conversion efficiencies. It remains to be seen whether the price of indium causes other technologies to prevail in solar energy generation. A significant portion of indium reserves is found in China.
Other materials have also experienced significant price increases as they go through supply/demand crunches.