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Dwindling of Rare Metals Imperils Innovation

Supplies of indium, used in liquid-crystal displays, and of hafnium, a critical element for next-generation semiconductors, could be exhausted by 2017, according to a new report.

The world may soon find itself running out of rare metals used to form key components in high-tech devices from cell phones to semiconductors to solar panels, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

In the respected British publication's audit of "Earth's natural wealth," David Cohen writes that reserves of elements from platinum (used not only in every pollution-reducing automobile catalytic converter in use today but also in fuel cells) to indium (used in flat-screen TVs and computer monitors) and tantalum (used in mobile phones) are "being used up at an alarming rate." These metals are chemical elements -- no synthetic replacement can be developed.

Even more common metals like zinc and copper are in increasingly short supply as they are used in rapidly developing economies like India and China. Over the last year thefts of copper from power lines and electrical substations have soared, as has the price of copper.

Cohen cites the work of researchers like Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, who has predicted that supplies of indium, used in liquid-crystal displays, and of hafnium, a critical element for next-generation semiconductors, could be exhausted by 2017. The world's zinc will be gone by 2037, Reller contends.

Shortages of rare metals could slow or prevent the development of new, more efficient solar panels (by, for example, DayStar Technologies Inc.) that use a combination of copper, indium, gallium and selenide.

Last week, in a presentation at the J.P. Morgan Technology Investment conference in New York, Pat Gelsinger, senior VP and general manager of Intel's digital enterprise division, mentioned the importance of hafnium to the giant chipmaker's forthcoming quad core Penryn chipsets. Related chemically to zirconium, hafnium is already used in a variety of industrial applications including as material for control rods in nuclear plants. Researchers at Intel and other chipmakers have discovered that hafnium compounds can replace silicon dioxide, which has been used as an insulator in semiconductors for several decades. The shift from silicon dioxide to hafnium could produce chips that are faster and more energy efficient.

Found in association with the minerals zircon and baddeleyite, hafnium costs around $187 per kilogram. The U.S. imports 4 to 5 metric tons a year. If current predictions for hafnium supply and demand prove accurate, in a decade we could be out of it.

Estimates of the available reserves of these elements vary widely -- within the last few days a significant find of indium has been reported in Bolivia. But, if true, the scientists' predictions would mean that the maxim often referred to as "Moore's Second Law" -- the cost of developing new and more complex chips increases geometrically -- could be more true than previously understood. And they could mean that some of the rarest and most precious building blocks of the information age could vanish far quicker than previously thought.

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