As 2019 has been declared the Year of the Periodic Table, to mark its 150th anniversary scientists have fashioned a revised periodic table to highlight the increasing scarcity of elements used in everyday devices such as smartphones and TVs. The new creation from the University of St Andrews and the European Chemical Society (EuChemS) provides a stark visual of the disuse – but not reuse – of our world’s consumption.

“It is astonishing that everything in the world is made from just 90 building blocks, the 90 naturally occurring chemical elements,” said David Cole-Hamilton, EuChemS vice-president, in a statement.

“There is a finite amount of each and we are using some so fast that they will be dissipated around the world in less than 100 years.”

In the European Union alone, around 10 million smartphones are discarded or replaced every month. Smartphones are made up of around 30 elements, 17 of which may give cause for concern in the coming years due to limited supplies, location in conflict areas, or our inability to fully recycle them. Scientists are particularly concerned about mobile phones, as most people upgrade every few years.

“We need to see a greater recognition of the risk element scarcity poses, and moves need to be made to support better recycling practices and an efficient circular economy,” noted EuChemS.

Here is the breakdown of the revised periodic table of elements.

Color code

The table is color-coded to denote the elements that are endangered, often at the hand of human consumption. In most cases, we don’t actually run out of the element, it just becomes sparse and difficult to harvest. Helium is the only exception here. It is so light it can escape Earth’s atmosphere and be lost to space. This is unfortunate as we use helium in high-field magnets, such as those in MRI machines. Deep-sea divers also use helium to dilute the oxygen in their tanks. Perhaps the use of helium for birthday balloons isn’t so important after all…

Conflict minerals

These minerals, colored in grey, come from mines in countries where wars are fought over ownership of the resource. This includes tin (Sn), tantalum (Ta), tungsten (W), and gold (Au). Although they can be found in countries where there is no war, they are in limited supply. Cobalt (Co) often comes from conflict areas as well, but it is currently not classified as a conflict mineral.

Serious threat

EuChemS places particular emphasis on Indium (In), Phosphorus (P), and Lithium (Li). 

Indium is used in smart screens as part of a transparent indium tin oxide conducting film. Based on current use and harvest rates, the element will be used up in 50 years and become extremely expensive.

Phosphorus is actually used in our own body, primarily for the formation of bones and teeth. A significant portion of the phosphate minerals we use ends up in run-off from fields or human sewage.

Lithium is used in rechargeable batteries and is relatively easy to recycle. However, we will likely need to step up our game to keep up with the supply in coming decades.

The revised periodic table was launched at the European Parliament on January 22 by British MEPs Catherine Stihler and Clare Moody.

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