Mine my mobile – our dependence on ‘technology metals’

Do you own a mobile phone? An ipod? A laptop or flat screen TV? Do you drive an electric car or get green energy from wind turbines? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these (which let’s face it, unless you’re a member of the Amish, you probably did), then the supply of so called ‘technology metals’ affects your daily life.

These metals, such as tungsten, rare earth elements and platinum, are known as ‘technology metals’ because it is only in the technological age that their importance to mankind has become apparent. Metals like lithium, which ten years ago had few uses in technology, but is now hugely important for Li-ion batteries found in mobile phones and other portable devices, and the rare earth metals, that are essential for the engine magnets for electric cars and wind turbines. As we move towards a high-tech, greener economy, these metals will become increasingly important.

But the supply of these metals and their availability for industry and manufacture are not assured. The British Geological Survey have just released a ‘Risk List‘ of these technology metals, giving each one a risk index according to their abundance in the Earth’s crust, the concentration of reserves in certain countries, the concentration of production in certain countries, and the stability of the countries where they are found, as categorised by the World Bank.

To say there is a ‘supply risk’ is not a case of us running out of these metals. Geologists believe there are plenty of them in the Earth’s crust to last us. The problem is getting at them. Factors like geopolitics and resource nationalism can mean that if one country that produces a large amount of the world’s supply of a metal (such as China, that produces 97% of the world’s rare earth metals) decides not to allow other countries to have it, there will be a major supply issue.

If we take the rare earth metals (REEs) as a case study, we can see that there are potential solutions. Although China produces 97% of the world’s REEs, there are two mines, at Mount Weld in Australia and Mountain Pass in the United States, that are ready to come online. The only reason that these new mines are financially viable is the high price of the REEs (rare earth magnets now cost around $400/kg) – China originally commercially squeezed out these mines by monopolising the market and being able to produce REEs more cheaply.

And it’s not just the Australian and North American mines that could be sources of REEs. If the apatite ore used for fertiliser production was run through a nitric acid factory rather than a sulphuric acid factory, REEs could be extracted. And there are many other potential deposits – as industrial byproducts, in Lopartite and carbonatite. Carbonatite is the most sought-after source because it contains less of the radioactive Thorium that makes other REE-containing deposits difficult to handle.

Another potential solution is recycling. There were 1.5 billion mobile phones made in 2010, and the average lifespan of a mobile (before we get bored and decide to upgrade) is around 18 months. A mobile contains Lithium in the battery, REEs in the speaker magnets and Indium in the screen – would it be possible to recycle these parts? Well, yes, but the question is whether we should be smelting the components and extracting the parts we want to keep, or making components that can just be re-used, and design mobiles like computers, designed to keep the same hardware but get software upgrades.

The British Geological Survey hope that their Risk List might be used by policymakers, manufacturers and consumers. Manufacturers might be able to choose less ‘risky’ metals to substitute in their products, and consumers may one day be able to decide whose products they buy based on the provenance of their raw materials – like choosing sustainably caught fish or free range eggs.




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