Tech in Danger: How Long Can We Rely On Mineral Raw Materials? (2022)

The future of technology is endangered by element scarcity, but circular business models can save us.

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In our daily lives, we take many things for granted. Technology is probably the first of them. We take for granted to have a fancy smartphone covering our hand, a slim laptop open on the desk, and a mighty fridge in the kitchen. We also take for granted that the plug of the fridge receives energy day and night, preferably from renewable resources. And clearly, our modem must guarantee a fast, perpetual internet connection.

We are so embedded in our technological world that we never question its existence. We rely blindly on technology, but technology relies blindly on something else: the supply of raw materials. All the devices around us are nothing but the end result of our ability to gather, process, and combine together chemical elements.

Often, it is thanks to the properties of rare, unusual chemical elements that the wonders of modern engineering can work and can exist in the first place. It sounds plausible to assume that we try to manage these strategic elements in the most responsible way possible.

But do we?

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The image above is a periodic table, but not the traditional one, which summarizes the atomic properties of all the elements that compose the matter around us. Instead, this periodic table illustrates two other aspects:

  1. The abundance of all the elements in the Earth’s crust. More precisely, the dimension of each cell is proportional to the total mass of the corresponding element in logarithmic scale.
  2. How long the supply of each element is expected to last. The risk of supply depletion is indicated by the color-coding, and it was estimated based on our projected extraction rates.

This image opened my eyes to the supply chain of modern technology. It inspired me to think differently about our society, our technology, and our future.

The elements in green are so abundant or so easily recoverable that their supply will be always granted. Conversely, elements in yellow, orange, and red have accordingly higher and higher criticality: their future supply is at risk.

But what does this even mean? In short, it means that we extract a lot, but we don’t reuse enough.

We are constantly hungry for new gadgets, smartphones, laptops, data centers, wires, batteries, electric cars, planes, industrial machines, wind turbines, power plants, and more. The global demand for technology not only requires ever-growing raw material inputs but also generates mountains of waste.

Often, when a product reaches its end of life, the elements it contains end up burned, dumped in some landfill, or dispersed in the environment. At this point, our chances to recover the precious elements are very low. They are probably lost forever, together with the technological applications they could have been reused for.

Therefore, this periodic table is not just a report about how long we can keep mining stuff, rather it is a clear alarm bell warning us that modern civilization is walking an unsustainable path.

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But what are the factors contributing to element scarcity? How can people and businesses adapt themselves and create a resilient future?

The authors of the “availability table” were provident enough to know that almost no one knows by heart the elements of the periodic table. Let alone what they are used for.

They anticipated us with an example we are all familiar with: the smartphone. In the picture, you can see an icon labeling the elements that typically enter in a smartphone (for convenience, the table is shown again below).

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It is astonishing how many elements enter in a smartphone. For instance,

  • lithium (Li) and cobalt (Co) are key ingredients for the battery;
  • copper (Cu), gold (Au), and silver (Ag) make wiring and micro-electrical components;
  • arsenic (As), phosphorus (P), gallium (Ga), and antimony (Sb) are used to tune the conductivity of the silicon (Si) chip;
  • tantalum (Ta) is used for micro-capacitors;
  • indium (In) and tin (Sn) are combined to create a transparent conductive coating on the touch screen;
  • yttrium (Y) and lanthanum (La) reinforce the glass of screen and camera;
  • neodymium (Nd) is famously known for its usage in magnets.

These and other elements find analogous applications in computers, tablets, and all the hardware of our digital age.

It is worrisome that we’re already running short of so many strategic elements.

First, this trend will push up the price of all electronics. Later, element scarcity could threaten the manufacture of important components.

Some people believe optimistically that scientists will always develop substitute materials to circumvent the limited supply of any endangered element. However, a much more solid solution is working towards a circular society, where the elements constituting any product can be completely recovered and reused for the next one. Unfortunately, we are still far away from this reality, as exemplified by the phenomenon of e-waste.

The term e-waste is used to indicate all discarded products equipped with a battery or a plug, including home appliances. Even though e-waste represents only a part of the global waste streams, I think it provides many key points to reason about sustainability in general.

A recent report of the United Nations predicts that

Global e-waste will reach 74 Mt (million metric tonnes) by 2030, almost a doubling in just 16 years. This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair. Only 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled. This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion, were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse. — UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020

The material and economic losses are astronomical. Just to make sense of the numbers, 74 Mt corresponds to the weight of about 225 Empire State Buildings, made completely by old laptops, printers and fridges; if e-waste were a country, US $57 billion would place it at the 80th position in the list of countries by GDP.

Next, the UN’s report warns us that the current recycling fraction is largely insufficient and won’t keep up easily with the 16-years doubling time of e-waste volumes. A part from Europe, which leads with a 42.5% recycling fraction, most of the other countries contribute minimally (e.g. Canada and U.S. stop at 15%) or not at all.

Scaling up recycling is a must, but alone it can’t stop the e-waste boom. The core of the problem is that the setup of our economy praises consumption and penalizes the value of reusing. Planned obsolescence offers us many products made-to-break and designed for complete replacement, rather than for an economical fix.

Zooming out of the e-waste example, it is important to remember that element criticality endangers many other crucial sectors of our society. Medical devices, energy production (also renewable!), scientific research and transportation all depend on a large supply of strategic elements.

So, before exploring solutions to prevent element criticality, let’s better examine what are all of its causes.

The absence of circularity in a constantly growing economy is the main cause of element criticality. However, the supply of a given element can be threatened by additional factors, such as its geological distribution and socio-political matters.

Geological distribution

Elements that appear in a small quantity on our planet are, logically, more susceptible to criticality. However, rare doesn’t necessarily mean “few of.”

Even if an element is relatively abundant, it might be so finely distributed in the environment that its extraction is close to unfeasible. This is the case of the rare-earth elements.

Rare-earth elements are employed in all sorts of applications — lasers, LEDs, glasses, magnets, batteries, catalysts, ceramics. Despite their name, many rare earths occur in a total amount 100 or 1000 times greater than some precious metals, such as gold (Au) or platinum (Pt). In fact, rare earths’ rarity is a result of their geochemical properties: rare earths like to “bond” and mix with other elements. Consequently, they occur seldom in nature as concentrated, exploitable ore deposits.

Socio-political issues

The more an element is rare, the more likely it occurs unevenly on the planet. The more it occurs unevenly, the fewer people control it.

For example, China supplies about 70% of all rare-earth elements. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces alone more than 60% of cobalt (Co). A single company in Brazil provides about 80% of niobium (Nb). South Africa accounts for 80% of global platinum production.

Whenever one or few countries control the mineral deposits of some element, global supply can be interrupted suddenly by novel legislations, embargos, local conflicts and other political interests. Thus, the decisions of a few countries can have significant repercussions on the supply— and hence the price — of raw materials.

On the one hand, this creates political and economical tensions between countries, which feel incentivized to secure domestic production. As I am writing this post, for instance, Canada announced the construction of a cutting-edge rare-earth processing facility, which will be operational by 2022.

On the other hand, countries might also have well-justified reasons for shutting down mining sites: mining is an activity that generates devastating environmental impacts and high safety risks for its workers. Especially in poor countries, unregulated working conditions and polluting treatments damage the health of the local population as well as of flora and fauna.

It is not a coincidence that Elon Musk is having a hard time finding an environment-friendly nickel supplier for his new line of lithium-free car batteries. Similarly, the EU is currently launching a new strategy to diversify its access to critical minerals.

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In summary, the business of raw materials generates injustice at social, technological, and environmental levels. Since mineral deposits are anyway doomed to run out, why don’t we just move immediately to the next step?

There are countless ideas to prevent element criticality and build a more sustainable future. A wide class of solutions consists of changing how we do and think of business.

Circularity needs to become the norm, not the exception.

The impact of any product needs to be considered before, while and after its lifetime. And not only from the economical side.

Other possible solutions address the problem at the supply level, employing futuristic alternatives that are already becoming a real thing.

Circular business models

How does an economy become circular? The transition starts in the blueprints.

Engineers and designers need to create products aimed to be repaired easily. Spare parts have to be cheap and easy to find. Repair must become the most straightforward option in the mind and in the pockets of the consumers. The act of repair is the essence of sustainability and outdoes recycling in terms of efficiency and energetic cost.

The repair spirit is beautifully summarized by the Repair Manifesto, ideated by the iFixit community. On their website, you can find lots of repair guides, spare parts, and the advice of skilled users, all happy to share their practical knowledge and to support you in fixing almost anything.

I am personally thankful to the Repair Manifesto because it convinced me to repair my old second-hand bike, instead of opting for a new one. Not only this saved me a lot of money, but now my bike has a unique vintage look which I am totally proud of. Repair is the ultimate proof of authentic ownership.

And what if repair is not possible anymore? Then products should be at least designed to be recycle-friendly, in such a way that different elements can be separated economically and effectively. When products are optimized for repair or recycling, a whole new spectrum of consumer-producer relationships are created.

For instance, companies could incentivize customers to send back old or irreversibly broken devices. In the hand of their creators, the location of all components and different elements is well-known. The recovered material could compensate for the shipping costs and reduce manufacturing efforts.

On a more ideological side, circularity can be created simply by redefining the meaning of ownership. For example, why do you need to buy a fridge? Why can’t you just rent it and take care of it? And when it needs some fix, promptly find repair options? Long-term rentals of this type might be beneficial to increasing the lifetime of products and create a new level of partnership between customers and producers.

Circularity transformations are already becoming noticeable also at greater scale. One admirable example is Enel, an Italian multinational energy company, leader in renewables and sustainable investment in 32 countries.

Enel’s commitment to sustainability is impressive, as can be appreciated by its 2020–2022 sustainability plan. The attention towards recycling practices and closed-loop supply chains is of vital importance in the green energy sector, since these technologies constitute the foundation of a sustainable society. Besides that, Enel is actively engaged in projects supporting the environment, biodiversity, and local communities.

Advanced recovery technology

Have you ever heard about phytomining, bioleaching, or biohydrometallurgy?

These exotic names refer to novel techniques where biological organisms carry out the hard job of recovering metallic elements finely dispersed in a system.

In phytomining, selected metal-accumulating plants recover metals dispersed in the soil through their roots. The metal is later collected by harvesting the biomass and burning it. Importantly, phytomining can heal metal-polluted soils and works also with low metal concentrations, where conventional mining would be uneconomical.

Bioleaching and biohydrometallurgy employ legions of bacteria to recover metals out of e-waste or aqueous solutions. The principle is analogous to phytomining, just with a different organism.

A New Zealand Startup Is Using Microbes to Suck Solid Gold Out of E-WasteMicroscopic organisms can extract precious metals from discarded

Asteroid mining

This definitely feels SciFi, but it is not unfeasible. Asteroid mining literally consists of capturing some big rock floating in outer space, mining the hell out of it, and coming back on Earth with pockets full of metal and money. Clearly, all of this would be done in remote with special miner-satellites and superb mission planning.

The first step is to choose the right asteroid because they are not all the same. Most of the asteroids are just worthless rocks. One needs to identify a metallic (or “M-type”) asteroid, whose core is made of valuable metals.

The total value of the elements contained in a metallic asteroid could be worth several trillions of dollars. If asteroid mining makes you curious, then you must absolutely watch this YouTube episode of Kurzgesagt.

Asteroid mining could be an impressive achievement for mankind, other than being totally cool. But to be honest, it can’t be considered a sustainable solution. It would be a huge but only temporary material input, and requires an insane technological and economical effort.

I believe it is more urgent to learn to make treasure of the resources we have on our planet, rather than start dreaming of the solar system. Element criticality is one of the many interconnected challenges that are awaiting us in the upcoming decades, among which biodiversity loss, unbalanced nitrogen cycle, soil degradation and water scarcity.

All these problems have a common solution: we, humans, have to set a limit to ourselves and operate within the boundaries of the planet. In the context of element scarcity, this means aiming at a 100% reuse of the elements already present in all our devices. It means maximizing the durability of any product. Ultimately, it means becoming independent from mineral raw materials.

The transformative power of circularity is enormous. All companies that shift towards a circular management of their material streams will:

  • increase the resilience of their technology in the market
  • secure themselves against price fluctuations of raw materials
  • invest in innovation and stay competitive
  • reduce their Scope-3 carbon emissions caused by mining
  • reduce the environmental damage caused by mining
  • reduce their waste streams
  • preserve biodiversity
  • ease political tension around strategic materials
  • create a more fair society with fewer miner tycoons and smugglers
  • say no to child labour taking place in third-world mining sites
  • say no to human-right violations in third-world mining sites
  • educate people about the value of repair, reuse and recycling
  • educate people about environmental issues
  • save our species.

Complete independence from mineral raw materials is clearly a utopia. A utopia that we should urgently try to approach since we are currently living on the opposite, unsustainable extreme.

Tech in Danger: How Long Can We Rely On Mineral Raw Materials? (6)

Special thanks to my friend Matteo Neri for constructive discussions about this topic.

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