The modern economies rely on the supply of raw materials, and of these, elements are the most critical because there are no alternatives to them. Businesses will collapse if certain elements became unavailable, and the British Geological Society puts out a “risk list” of elements that have a risk of supply disruption. The list is debatable, because it includes political risk, thus the most risky from their perspective are the rare earth elements, the problem here being that China is essentially the main producer and reserve holder. These elements’ risk factors also depend on their demand, thus if there is no known use for something, it has zero risk because even if there is none of it, who cares? However, the overall conclusion is, we could have a problem. As in many such issues, not everyone agrees. Staff at the University of Geneva have published a report arguing that there is no shortage, at least for the foreseeable future. They argue you can mine over three kilometers below the Earth’s surface, or in the oceans. Whether you want to do this, or can even find the deposits, is less clear.
There is no shortage of elements but the bulk of them are distributed in very low concentrations in rock, or seawater. It may surprise some to know that there is plenty of gold in seawater. The problem is, it is rather dilute, and of course there are massive amounts of other materials. Thus there is about eleven tonnes of gold in a trillion tonnes of seawater. Good luck trying to get it out. Same with the rare earth elements. They are not especially rare; however they are particularly rare in workable deposits. Part of the problem is their chemistry has a certain similarity to aluminium, and as a result, they tend to be spread out amongst feldsic/granitic material and as microscopic inclusions (mixed with a lot of other stuff) in basalt. Rather interestingly, there are massive deposits on the Moon, where, as the Moon cooled down, the various rocks crystallised into solids, and one of the last of the liquids to solidify was KREEP, a mix of potassium (K), rare earth elements, and phosphate (P). This also indicates the reason why we have ore deposits on Earth: geological processing. Taking gold as an example, it, and silica dissolve in supercritical water, and as the water comes to the surface and cools down, the gold and the silica come out of solution, which is why you find gold in quartz veins. There are, of course, a variety of geological routes to make ores, but geology is a slow process, so once we run out of easy to find deposits, we have a deep problem. And on a planet such as Mars, there has not been so much geological processing, and no plate tectonics.
One way out of this is recycling, if you can work out how to do it and make a dollar. One big user of rare elements is mobile phones. Thus the “swipe-screen” uses indium/tin oxide, the electronics use copper, silver and gold for carrying current, tantalum for microcapacitors, and neodymium in the magnets. These are the critical elements, and in general there are no substitutes for their specific uses. However, the total number of elements used can be up to sixty. The problem for recycling is first, to get hold of the old ones, as opposed to have them lying about or thrown in the trash, and then to separate out what you want. If you simply melt them, you get a horrible mix. The process could be simplified if the phones could be split into parts, thus only the screens contain indium, but how do you do that?
Early on in my scientific career, I was asked by a company to devise a means of recycling coloured plastics. I did this, a pilot plant was built, a few bugs were ironed out and we could recycle coloured polyethylene to get a very light beige product that could be made into new coloured products by the addition of pigments, and the casual user would not know the difference between that and new plastics for most uses. So this should have been a success? Well, no. There were two problems. This was during the oil crisis of the seventies, and what had happened was that there was an oversupply of new polyethylene in the world. Such surplus was dumped on the New Zealand market, where “it would not do any harm”. That dumping made the venture economically unsustainable. Some time later, the dumping stopped, but by this time the original company had lost interest. Also, the manufacturers introduced more cross-linking, and in a quick demonstration, the process did not work without altering the conditions beyond what had been assumed. There were ways around that, but the warning was clear: the manufacturers were not being friendly to recycling as they kept their information close to their chests. Such changes really hinder recycling. However, that was not the worst: new laminates started appearing, and these were a horror for recycling because the two or more different plastics put together as layers do not separate easily, and any product made from a resultant mix will be of very low quality.
So, we can either have a problem with elements, or we can recycle. Recyclers tend not to have the high technology of the multinational corporations, so my recommendation is, manufacturers should be made to design their goods in a way that aids recycling. For example, a laptop or a mobile phone has lithium ion batteries. It is also essentially impossible to get the battery out when it dies and leave the item in a workable condition. It might suit the manufacturer to force the consumer to buy another laptop as opposed to a new battery, but as the technology matures, is that good enough? Similarly, if the motherboards could be removed/replaced, that would aid recycling and also reduce demand for new gadgets. When I was young, people fixed things. I think it is time to return to those times, and also make objects as recyclable as possible. The problem then is, how do you manage that in a market where competition rules, and the consumer does not think about recycling when he or she buys a new product?