Future of electronics after 2012

Note: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.

Whenever electronics are discussed, the conversation always involves the argument that electronics are environmentally damaging. In order to make electronics, we need materials that have to be mined out of the ground, be highly processed, and manufactured in astronomically high quantities. Electronics also require energy to function, and many electronic components are often discarded with little or no consideration about the materials, energy, and time that went into making the product.

rareearthIf all of the previous points were not enough, I unfortunately have yet another thing to add: the consumption of rare earth materials. The phrase “rare earth materials” has been used frequently when discussing many technologically advanced designs, but what exactly does this phrase mean? Rare earth materials are 17 metallic elements, all of which have similar properties, as they reside in the same families within the periodic table of elements. The elements are: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium [1].

While the general consumer may not hear about many of these individual elements, one thing is certain: They are vital to our current technologically-charged world. These materials are used in fiber optics, hybrid car batteries, x-ray units, magnets used in computer hard drives, and many other applications [2]. While many of us enjoy the applications of rare earth materials (REM), we may not be able to enjoy them for much longer. Since these materials are rare, it seems that we have currently depleted 95% to 97%, depending on which article you read, of the Earth’s REMs [3]. The rapid depletion of these materials becomes alarmingly more critical, since China controls most of the materials. More significantly, some reports have stated that China has been decreasing their REM exports and will completely stop them in 2012. (If you believe that the world will end in 2012, I am sure this news rings a very loud and alarming bell.)

While one may easily dismiss articles published by The Economic Collapse as pure paranoia, it is much harder to dismiss several claims by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In April of 2010, the GAO gave a presentation, which is publicly available, titled “Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain“. The report explains further information and details about rare earth materials, their applications, as well as possible solutions to the REM depletion.

Slide 16 of the GAO report lists other countries with rare earth material deposits. The list of countries includes the U.S., China, Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, and others. Furthermore, the report mentions that work new rare earth material mines needs to be begin. IndustryWeek reports of a mine in California that was previously used to mine REMs within the United States, but the mine’s Chinese competitors successfully drove the mine out of business. Naturally, an option under consideration is the re-opening of this new mine, which would take at least 3-5 years to become fully operational. In order to create a completely new mine, significant capital investment is needed in order to get the mine 100% operational in 7-15 years, according to the GAO. In the best case scenario, that leaves the U.S. and remainder of the world without REMs 1-3 years, or in the worst case scenario, this would be 5-13 years.

Some sources, such as the Natural News, suggest that we (the global, societal “we”) should recycle rare earth materials. After all, there is a significant market for recycling common metals such as lead, copper, and aluminum. The UN Environmental Programme has stated the importance of metals recycling. In fact, the UNEP has published a report stating current metal recycling rates and also explains the need for increased recycling of specific materials of interest. A press release from May 13, 2010, offers a brief summary as well as a link to the full text of the report.

If you read this post and all of its related links, you may start believing in the Mayan prediction for the year 2012. But the goal of this blog post is not to scare or stir people into a frenzy. Instead, the goal of this post is to inform and brainstorm! Because of this, I want to involve you, the reader. I want your input and feedback. What do you think can be done? Is increased mining the answer? Do we need to find new technologies for recycling these precious materials? Can the world’s brilliant scientists create new materials which would have the desired properties of rare earth materials? What other options can you offer?

While the technical questions are important, it is vital to also ask several social questions. For example, if you do believe in being eco-conscious, how much are you willing to give up in order to save these precious metals? Will you hold on to your computer, cell phone, or other device for 2-3 instead of 1.5 years, if it will save some rare earth materials which could be used in medical equipment that can save someone’s life? What are you willing to give up? And how much of it?

There are many more questions that I could ask, but I think these brain teasers should be enough. What do you think? I would love to enter a dialogue, not of “The world is ending!” but, “This is a problem, and here is what we can do”. Please, I invite you all, scientists, engineers, designers, environmentalists, students, consumers and everyone else to humor me for a few minutes. Let me know what you think about this subject!