The Why Files The Why Files --

Shortages looming: Phosphorus, copper, rare metals

Essential elements could face peaks of their own

Heard the warnings about peak oil? If -- actually when -- petroleum production reaches a maximum level and starts to decline, soaring prices and declining supplies could cause social and economic chaos. Peak oil, once mocked as a concern for the distant future, could soon be upon us.

Car sits at gas pump, nozzle in the side
People seem more concerned about the supply of oil to fuel this car, but the catalytic converter contains a rare metal called platinum, and it's supplies won't last forever, either. Do we need to give more thought about the supply of rare elements?
© David Tenenbaum

But what happens when we exhaust other products of the Earth? Many of the metals we get from mines are crucial for modern technology, even if we've never heard of them. For example:

euEuropium makes red light in the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen computers and televisions, and "No substitute is known," says the U.S. Geological Survey. Europium is one of a group of "rare earth elements," which have unique electrical, magnetic and optical properties, and play countless roles in advanced motors and batteries, and in lasers and hard disks. Most of the supply of rare earths comes from China.

inIndium, also used in flat screen displays, GPS systems, and glass coatings, could be depleted by 2017, according to Armin Reller, of the University of Augsburg in Germany (see #1 in the bibliography).

ptPlatinum is a key industrial catalyst whose major use is in smog-cutting catalytic converters in cars. To get an idea of platinum's supply-and-demand situation, within the past year its price spiked to $2252 per ounce, more than twice the $1002 max for gold during that period.

Flat television has rectangular shape, black edging and broadcasts bright-colored hot air balloons
Photo: Sharp
Imagine life without flat-screen TVs and laptops? That could come to pass if industry uses up the uncommon elements needed to make those pretty pictures!

Other worries

Like petroleum, the atoms of rare metals can be exhausted, but they differ from oil in one key respect: You can switch from oil to other energy sources, such as coal, wind, Earth's heat and the sun. Nobody can make the elements we'd need to supply modern industry.

The disappearing-element story does not just concern obscure elements. We'll discuss copper, the essential carrier of electricity, later. But first, think about phosphorus, the essential fertilizer. If supplies run short, billions of people could face starvation.

Honest? Could we confront a phosphorus shortage?

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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