The PC rare metals crisis

15th Jan 2011 | 10:00

The PC rare metals crisis

Smart recycling of electronic waste could stave off materials supply drought

Your PC contains an arcane concoction of materials that are rare, hazardous and dangerous to manufacture, but what would happen if those ingredients were to run out?

That doomsday scenario was raised twice last November, when New Scientist reported that supplies of indium tin oxide – a material used in the manufacture of touchscreens – are likely to run out by 2020.

Meanwhile, The New York Times sparked an investigation into American/Chinese trade relations when it claimed that China was planning to cut exports of rare earth elements – used in many technological applications – by almost a third.

Indium tin oxide (ITO) is used to coat LCD panels for touchscreens. A by-product of lead and zinc mining, it is conductive and transparent, but expensive to produce. The US Geological Survey, on whose work the New Scientist report was based, estimates worldwide reserves of indium to be around 16,000 tons, or 10 years' supply.

The Indium Corporation, however, claims that there are reserves of 50,000 tons, and the current demand is just 500 tons a year. According to the corporation, the report into ITO supplies doesn't take into account the fact that 75-80 per cent of ITO used in the production of a touchscreen doesn't stay on the glass, but is recycled back into the manufacturing process.

"People usually don't realise the impact of recycled material, and confuse the total demand with the net demand," said Emily Giasone, metals manager at Indium Corporation. "There is a big quantity coming back in the loop that should be taken into consideration."

Rare earth elements

Rare earth elements (REEs) are also very costly to refine, although not as hard to come by as their name suggests. REEs include metals such as neodynium, dysprosium and terbium, which are commonly used in various components, including LED backlights, magnets for speakers, hard drives and DVD drives.

The vast majority of REEs – some 97 per cent – currently come from China, where production is much cheaper than in other territories with REE reserves, including Russia, South Africa and the US.
The Chinese government was quick to deny the allegation that it was planning to restrict REE exports.

However, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) warned that the current supply chain is unsustainable.

"The world demand for [REEs] is higher than the current production rate," said Charlotte Beard, Physical Sciences Program Manager at the RSC. "And with new developments being made in the electronics market this demand is only due to increase further."

Demand is estimated at some 134,000 tons per year, while only 124,000 tons are produced annually.

While the future of PCs may not be in imminent danger, these stories throw into sharp relief how little most people know about the manufacturing process of computer parts, and how profligate we are in the use of rare or hazardous materials.

Over 60 elements are used in IT production processes, including mercury, cadmium, beryllium, lead, bromine, gold, platinum, lithium and more.

The use of such materials also presents problems when PCs reach the end of their lives, although environmental activist group Greenpeace says a lot has changed since it published its first Green Guide to Electronics in 2006 – the same year the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive came into force.

"When we launched the campaign, there were no BFR- [bromine flame retardant] and PVC-free products on the market," said Renee Blanchard, Greenpeace's Toxics Campaigner. "Today, many of the companies we rank have at least one product that is almost completely free of these hazardous substances."

Dangerous waste

"The area where the industry is weakest is in taking responsibility for [its] own e-waste," Blanchard continued. According to a recent report, 'Tackling High-Tech Trash', by the New York-based research and advocacy group Demos, the US generates around three million tonnes of electronic waste a year, of which less than 14 per cent is recycled.

Another report, by Computer Aid, says that even in the EU with its tough WEEE regulations, only a third of e-waste is accounted for.

Yet the problems of obtaining raw materials and safely disposing of old products could be overcome if more e-waste was recycled.

As the Demos report points out: "More gold could be extracted from a metric ton of used circuit boards than could be extracted from 17 metric tons of gold ore".

Many experts believe that standardised, modular product design from which more essential materials can be recycled is not an impossible goal for the IT industry, if it chooses to rise to the challenge. There's a long way to go.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 303

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