Friday, September 14, 2007

Nuclear, Tech and Solar Duke It Out for Rare Metals

Metal scarcity is pushing some of the world's biggest industries into a regular Battle Royale, as they struggle to obtain enough raw materials to continue operations. Metals are chemical elements, and prized for their unique properties; usually no synthetic replacement can be developed. New Scientist magazine reports that the world is running out of several rare metals used to form key components in high-tech devices, including cell phones and semiconductors. The article mentions that supplies of indium, used in liquid-crystal displays, and of hafnium, a critical element for next-generation semiconductors, could be exhausted by 2017.

That's a problem, but a bigger one is other green (solar) and maybe-not-so-green (nuclear) industries need these minerals as well. For example, manufacturers of solar panels require large amounts of copper, indium, gallium and selenide. And hafnium (currently $187 per kilogram) is used for control rods in nuclear plants. It's only going to get more pricey - if current predictions for hafnium supply and demand prove accurate, in a decade we could be out of it.

Good news is that estimates of the available reserves of these elements vary widely, and can change daily - a significant find of indium was recently reported in Bolivia for example. But with the current crunch, it could mean that some of the rarest and most precious building blocks of the information age could vanish far quicker than previously thought, and make it tough to transition into new energy-related technologies. Do you really need that new computer? :: Information Week

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