Dwindling of Rare Metals Imperils Innovation - InformationWeek
Business & Finance
03:55 PM

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.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
To learn more about what organizations are doing to tackle attacks and threats we surveyed a group of 300 IT and infosec professionals to find out what their biggest IT security challenges are and what they're doing to defend against today's threats. Download the report to see what they're saying.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
2017 State of IT Report
In today's technology-driven world, "innovation" has become a basic expectation. IT leaders are tasked with making technical magic, improving customer experience, and boosting the bottom line -- yet often without any increase to the IT budget. How are organizations striking the balance between new initiatives and cost control? Download our report to learn about the biggest challenges and how savvy IT executives are overcoming them.
Twitter Feed
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.
Flash Poll