Regulation is needed to ‘protect chemical elements in danger’

Changing technologies risk putting chemical elements in danger and regulation is needed to ensure their protection, a scientist has said.

Some of the Earth’s elements are in danger of running out, and some are being used in everyday objects like in mobile phones.

According to a survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), there are up to 40 million unused electronic gadgets in UK homes.

Each of those devices, such as touch screen phones, contain rare elements like indium.

More than 2,000 people took part in an online survey which revealed that half of UK homes had at least one unused electronic device and 45% of households had up to five.

Dr Ian Ingram, a lecturer in organic and green chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, said industry needs to move to a more “life cycle oriented set of business practices”.

He added: “And I can only see that coming from more regulation, to be honest, because there’s no marketplace for that to happen unless, things are incentivised or taxed or regulated in such a way that forces the market to respond to those regulations.”

Speaking to the PA news agency he explained that there are a number of reasons why various elements are in danger, or could find themselves in danger.

These include some of them having a low crystal abundance and simply not very many being available in the Earth’s crust – like platinum or palladium or ruthenium.

While the difficulty of extracting indium is that it can only be co-extracted as a small fraction of something else that is being mined.

Another reason is that as new technologies are developed, it is hard to predict their popularity and how much natural resource they will require.

A smartphone
A smartphone

Dr Ingram said: “There’s a number of problems and it all depends on the element you’re talking about you see.

“Some of them, it’s because population is growing so demand is going up for that reason.

“The classic element that people talk about for this is phosphorus. Because, it is used in fertilisers.

“So anything that you do using phosphorus, you have to consider whether you’re competing with people’s ability to produce food economically.

“Obviously if you suddenly come up with a new chemical process that’s got a huge amount of phosphorus, that risks putting up phosphorus prices.

“And then that risks people not being able to feed themselves because phosphorus is an important part of the agricultural chemicals business.

“It is not super rare but it’s considered to be under threat because of the fact that the economics of it is related to food production.”

He added that green chemists try to look at their processes going forward and have awareness of the metals they are using in terms of safety and sustainability.

“There are loads of people doing research on better methods of element recovery,” said Dr Ingram.

“We just need to be careful, we just need to have an awareness of it as we go forward trying to develop new technologies that are really dependent on something that’s got low crystal abundance.

“There’s always research to be done, obviously, but I think the important thing is that we recognise, there is an issue.”

Dr Ingram explained that regulation would also help as it would let people know that being greener and having more sustainable products and processes would allow them to get ahead of the competition.

He added: “I think there is an appetite amongst people who understand green chemistry and understand the need to do something about it, but it’s something that won’t be changed by keeping the status quo by preserving the status quo.

“People do need to be radical in their thinking, otherwise I’m seriously concerned about the future.”

– 2019 was the International Year of the Periodic Table, marking the 150th anniversary of the Medeleev periodic table.