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Earth Technology

Supplies of Rare Earth Elements Exhausted By 2017 958

tomhudson writes "While we bemoan the current oil crisis, I ran across an editorial that led me to research a more immediate threat. Ramped-up production of flat-panel displays means the material to make them will be 'extinct' by 2017. This goes for other electronics as well. Quoting: 'The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany's University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet's stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.' More links at the journal entry."
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Supplies of Rare Earth Elements Exhausted By 2017

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  • Recycling (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan100 ( 1003855 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:15AM (#24028111) Homepage
    How many of this stuff can be recovered by recycling? In the EU, companies now have to recycle old electronic equipment [], which will surely extend the availability of these materials.
    • Re:Recycling (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Vectronic ( 1221470 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:29AM (#24028277)

      Indeed, im not sure about all these -iums, which are no doubt toxic to us anyways... but zinc and copper is pretty easy to recycle, and in a decade, we might not need the -iums we (dont really) need now...

      Especially if we upgrade all the phone and cable lines to optical, and recycle those trillion miles of copper, and as we move away from coin money (another debate unto itself) there's also that (both copper and zinc), replacing copper pipes with plastic, etc, etc, etc... although, all that plastic is also another debate.

    • Re:Recycling (Score:5, Insightful)

      by VanillaCoke420 ( 662576 ) <vanillacoke420@h ... Eom minus distro> on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:12AM (#24028837)
      It will extend the availability, but sooner or later there will be too little left, even if every single piece of electronics is recycled, which will never happen. Sadly it seems we have gotten used to the idea of consuming things in the sense that we use it, then when it's used up we just throw it away, expecting to have infinite supplies to make new stuff. This delusion runs so deep that some people are offended by the idea of recycling.

      With population growth and new countries wanting to raise their standard of living, we will run out of these elements even faster.

      • Re:Recycling (Score:4, Interesting)

        by darkstar949 ( 697933 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @10:36AM (#24030261)
        But that also might buy us enough time to figure out an efficient enough means of mining for minerals in other parts of the solar system. People always say that right now we "have no reason to go into space," but needing to mine minerals that are used in industry would be enough of a prompt to get us up in space that the argument would then be lost.
  • copper (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jacquesm ( 154384 ) <j&ww,com> on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:17AM (#24028121) Homepage

    is by far the most serious in the above list. Ok, so flat panel manufacturers and researchers would have to pay top dollar, no biggie. But copper is going to get more and more crucial as the combined crunch of oil shortage and increased electrical demands are going to combine.

    • Re:copper (Score:5, Informative)

      by SizzlinSaguaro ( 1314117 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:46AM (#24028483)
      Copper is in no danger of being depleted, and probably none of the other elements listed. About 3 years ago, copper was barely $1 per pound, and most copper mines around here (S. Arizona) could operate at that price. In fact they could operate at about $0.40 per pound, albeit they would just be hanging on financially. Today, the price of copper is about $3.50 to $4.00 per pound, and they can't pull the stuff out of the ground fast enough. This has cause a couple of things to happen: Old mines are expanding, and new mines are opening up or being proposed. Eventually, this will probably lead to the price of copper to go back down as supply will catch up to demand.
    • by Jay L ( 74152 ) * <{mf.yaj} {ta} {hsals+yaj}> on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:56AM (#24028613) Homepage

      Copper prices are now high enough that it's worth trying to steal. Here in Boston, at least once a month there's a story about someone killed trying to steal copper from power lines that turn out to be, y'know, active.

      Construction sites now have to be locked up tightly. It's not just the tools that get stolen; it's the pipes and the wire spools.

      I assume this will get worse as copper gets scarcer and, thus, more expensive.

      The OP mentions plumbing, but I'm not sure that plastic is a viable alternative yet. I've built a few houses, and always used copper, at least for the main plumbing. I remember in the 1990s, the industry tried using PVC, but had problems of some kind, and went back to copper. Today, you can use PEX or Hep2O flexible tubing for heating, but I don't know if it's approved for drinking yet - and we probably don't know its long term stability. Copper is still the gold standard (sorry!) for plumbing.

      (Side rant: When copper pipes freeze, you can use an arc welder to heat them back up. You can't do that with PEX, since it's plastic, not metal. So if it gets too cold, your heat stops working... which means the air can't warm up enough to melt the ice... shampoo, rinse, repeat. Make sure your PEX is in a well-insulated wall.)

    • Re:copper (Score:4, Informative)

      by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:21AM (#24028975) Homepage

      Then help support the change from copper wire in your house to copper clad aluminum or other abundant metal. the problem with aluminum wiring was the corrosion problem as aluminum corrodes fast, copper cladding solves that.

      But the Govt in their infinite stupidity still has aluminum house wiring bans in place. Hell I am testing Cu clad Al cat5e wire right now. it strips the same and is working very well in stress testing. only failure point is when used as a wall to PC jumper as lots of bending and unbending and bending will crack the wires. but in the wall from wall jack to patch panel it's perfectly good.

      Also It's 1/2 the price of copper Cat5e.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:17AM (#24028131) Journal
    They can dig tons of soil, call them ore, smelt them, refine them, separate the rare-earth material from all other contaminants, purify them and make LCD displays.

    When an LCD display breaksdown, they won't be able to crush them into tiny bits, smelt them and recover the material? All it means is your 50" LCD monitor will have some significant residual value and you will sell the dead monitor for some money instead of throwing it in the dumpster.

    • by SQL Error ( 16383 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:21AM (#24028179)

      And landfills will become valuable commercial property.

      • by FLEB ( 312391 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:40AM (#24028397) Homepage Journal

        Really, I've often wondered when "landfill mining" was going to take off as a viable enterprise, as the higher cost of materials justifies the complicated means.

        • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:00AM (#24028671)

          Likewise. There's a whole world of landfill sites (a whole western world, at least) full of things we didn't recycle efficiently, either because we didn't know how or we just didn't bother. I don't know enough about the techniques involved to judge this, but it seems that if deep mining operations are commercially viable today, landfill mining could become commercially viable in the not-too-distant future.

          I think the other thing that will have to change is this idea that you buy something but then "upgrade" it after only a very short period of use and throw the old one away, even though the old one still worked perfectly well or needed only routine maintenance to repair. Our culture has become terribly wasteful, because today's economics (and poor customer service when it comes to getting things repaired) practically force anyone sensible to buy a new replacement for things. That's just crazy.

        • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:35AM (#24029201)

          Really, I've often wondered when "landfill mining" was going to take off as a viable enterprise, as the higher cost of materials justifies the complicated means.

          In Italy, before WW2, they mined iron from the slag heaps of Roman-era smelters - it had a higher iron concentration than any ore that could then be found in Italy.

      • by pragma_x ( 644215 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:55AM (#24028603) Journal

        I've been saying this for years. We'll be exploring landfills soon after they're no longer viable for producing methane gas. Meanwhile, states that refused to bury, and opted to dump their garbage elsewhere will be kicking themselves - hard.

        Such "exhausted" landfills will be packed with little more than inorganic waste, like easily harvested metals. Point at anything on the periodic table and it'll exist in a landfill at concentrations far higher than what exists in ore deposits we're mining today; so this will be ridiculously profitable. Add to that the fact that they're all close to home, and you have yourself an industry that does a brisk business in mining landfills. And since all the stinky stuff has long since decomposed, you only have heavy-metals and toxic runoff to worry about (read: just like a normal mine).

        After that, companies will look to cut out the middle man and buy back everyone's e-waste after the recycling plant has sorted it out. So the landfill will dissapear, leaving a closed loop from the recovery of raw materials all the way to the consumer and back again.

        "SQL Error", you have the board. Pick a category.

        • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:46AM (#24029383)

          Point at anything on the periodic table and it'll exist in a landfill at concentrations far higher than what exists in ore deposits we're mining today

          *Points at silicon*

        • by DanOrc451 ( 1302609 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @10:37AM (#24030281)

          Sorry, all the organic materials will not have decomposed. This is one of the many misconceptions about our waste stream. The compression of the trash generally results in an anaerobic environment, and it all mostly just.... stays there.

          Here's a nice little summary [] about garbage myths that it looks like William Ruthje of the Tucson Garbage Project [] put together for high school students about misconeptions regarding trash. One of the particularly surprising and interesting things is the huge percentage of garbage that is actually just paper.

          While the article seems to have been written in 1992 and I'm sure trash disposal streams have changed a bit, it gives the general idea and is quite an interesting read. The short of it is that there's a huge volume of stuff out there, and gallium, hafnium, and the like might very well turn out to still be small needles in a very large, stinky, toxic, and hazardous haystack for many years to come.

  • by Ancient_Hacker ( 751168 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:17AM (#24028135)

    It would be mighty surprising if this chicken-little themed story was correct.

    Most things when in short supply, their price goes up. People notice this and they either cut back on their use of the stuff, find a substitute, or go out digging for it.

    We do have a terrible shortage of celluloid shirt collars, ivory piano keys, whale oil and pyramid shims. Who cares?

    • by Qzukk ( 229616 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:21AM (#24028193) Journal

      find a substitute

      I hear Quake 5 for the abacus is going to be awesome!

    • by MrMr ( 219533 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:24AM (#24028233)
      Yep, clueless, check this story []
      The authors apparently do not realize that the available amount of Gallium depend on the price:
      Its impending scarcity could already be reflected in its price: in January 2003 the metal sold for around $60 per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram
  • by Bozzio ( 183974 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:18AM (#24028143)

    We still haven't even begun to use our Upsidasium supply.
    Surely it will last us forever.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:18AM (#24028153)
    *Tries to shoot self but fails due to gun not functioning without Zinc*
  • by jayhawk88 ( 160512 ) <> on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:21AM (#24028181)

    NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! Come back, zinc, come back!

    *Whew*, it was just a dream. Thank goodness I still live in a world of telephones, car batteries, handguns [*bang*!] and many things made of zinc.

  • Rare Earth Elements? (Score:5, Informative)

    by srjh ( 1316705 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:21AM (#24028183)
    Apparently Gallium isn't a Rare Earth Element [].

    Actually, neither is Hafnium, Indium, Zinc or Copper. Does the article have any connection to the rare earth elements at all?
  • Gone? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:22AM (#24028201)
    Something tells me that "the world's supply" of these elements isn't actually going down. Unless Ye Olde Alchemical Procefes (sorry, Mr. Stephenson) are actually transmuting, say, indium, into gold... it's just a question of where the elements are. Which is to say that I'm sure there's lots of it sitting right there in landfills, probably easier to get to than it is when bound up in 100 tons of rock and dirt in a mine. I mean, we didn't ship THAT much of the stuff to Mars yet, did we?

    Or, if the point is that all of these elements are bound up in in-use devices, and always will be, then that's another matter. But I'd be a bit surprised to find that we've actually touched even close to all of the deposits available. Just the cheap ones. And recycling will probably be cheaper than, say, mining it on the moon or the ocean floor.
  • off base ^ 99 (Score:4, Informative)

    by Ancient_Hacker ( 751168 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:22AM (#24028203)

    First of all, the "rare earths" are not all thst rare.

    Secondly, none of the elements mentioned in the sd story are in any way even near to being a rare earth, i.e. an element in that row of the periodic table.

    And of course it's unlikely we will "run out" of anything, or that it will matter. Things seem to turn up when the price goes up, or we find substitutes.

    Otherwise, the story was okay.

  • by Rooked_One ( 591287 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:22AM (#24028207) Journal
    mining our landfills will begin...

    It was going to have to happen eventually. One thing i've always thought to myself is, that if the earth is here 50,000 years from now and some cognitive being starts exploring, everything will be told in our landfills... They may not be able to know what we did at this time, but they will know the materials we used - at least Styrofoam ;)
  • OftLoG (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rindeee ( 530084 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:22AM (#24028215)
    Every few weeks we have to endure this kind of drivel. Doom and gloom to sell news, get grant dollars, whatever. Last week's scare mongering wearing thing? Just trot out the latest manbearpig. In cases such as this, past performance IS a pretty good indicator of the future. We, mankind, make improvements, overcome shortfalls, etc. OLEDs will surpass LCDs in price/performance. Then the next. And the next. And so on. I'm damn sick of the media (ALL of the media be it online, print, radio, conservative, liberal, "Fair and Balanced", whatever) basing 95% of their reporting on sensationalism to pump up non-news.
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:26AM (#24028253)

    All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc.

    We are of course not shooting our rare Earth elements into space, they won't be gone, they will be sitting in waste dumps in China and elsewhere.

    Maybe the headline should have been "We will be mining landfills by 2017 for Rare Earths."

  • Heard it before (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gaijin_ ( 134592 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:27AM (#24028259)

    A frew decades ago the supply of copper seemed to run out. This resulted in a large hike in copper prices that made the copper in AT&T's wires in the US more valueble than the stocks of the entire company. Then a bunch of people opened new copper mines that extracted copper ore that was not profitable to extract at the earlier lower price.

    Then the price fell again, but to a higher level than it was before.

    This is what happens with all kinds of raw materials. The price goes up, but the supply doesn't try out.

    Oil has the same tendency, the oil that they have started digging now is much more expensive to get out of the ground than the 20$ a barrel they used to dig out a few years ago. (Ofcause the oil fields that were profitable at 20$ a barrel are now astronomically profitable at 130$ a barrel!)

  • Illudium (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phrostie ( 121428 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @08:29AM (#24028287)

    and without more Illudium how will we make moreQ-36 Explosive Space Modulators

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @09:05AM (#24028727) Homepage
    First, gallium and indium are not rare earth elements. I don't know what the heck these guys are talking about. Second, there is plenty of gallium around-- it's found anywhere you can refine aluminum from. It's not usually recovered because it isn't economical to, but if it were in fact running out, it could be easily produced as a byproduct of aluminum production.
  • by Tweenk ( 1274968 ) on Wednesday July 02, 2008 @10:56AM (#24030675)

    1. Buy cheap land.
    2. Create a landfill and make people pay you for dumping their waste there.
    3. Profit (for the first time)!
    4. Wait until it's profitable to mine your landfill for rare elements.
    5. Open a mining operation and have people pay you for things you extract from their waste.
    6. Profit (for the second time)!

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger