The Most Endangered Elements

The Most Endangered Elements
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Since its earliest inception, the periodic table has come in a variety of forms. The modern version, created by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg in 1944, is elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its ability to enlighten. Not only can the table elucidate the elements that comprise it, it can also be used to accurately predict the properties of elements that haven't even been discovered.

In 2011, Mike Pitts and his colleagues at the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network augmented the periodic table for a different purpose: to show which elements are at risk of becoming endangered. Their analysis revealed 44 elements facing limited supply or under threat of becoming scarce or inaccessible. Included among them are all of the rare earth elements (prominently used in cell phones and consumer electronics), as well as zinc, gallium, germanium, helium, silver, and even phosphorus.

"It is quite a sobering table," Martyn Poliakoff, a newly knighted University of Nottingham chemist and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, remarked last May. "Most chemists would not expect zinc to be more endangered than platinum in terms of supply."

The story of how each of the 44 endangered elements received their classification differs, but the reasons are broadly tied to issues of supply versus demand, inefficient or nonexistent recycling practices, difficulty of extraction or purification, or rarity in Earth's crust.

Particularly at risk are rare earth elements widely used in cell phones and green technologies. Each iPhone contains dozens of these. Every new megawatt of wind power installed requires nearly a ton of rare earth permanent magnets. The battery of the world's most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius, contains 10 to 15 kilograms of lanthanum (a rare earth) alone.

The world received a pricey wake-up call to the issue in 2011, when China -- which controls a gigantic proportion of the rare earth metal supply -- doubled or even tripled the prices of many rare earth minerals over a span of just three weeks. Prices have since calmed, but they still remain above 2011 baseline levels.

Rare earths aren't the only elements threatened. Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, is one of the nine most endangered on the table and may be subject to serious supply issues by the end of the century. Its scarcity is due to wanton usage and it's ephemeral nature. Helium in the atmosphere is actually able to escape into space. The United States, which produces 75% of the world's helium and maintains one of the largest stores, sets prices for the element, and these prices need to go up, scientists say, by as much as fifty fold. That way, helium would be used more efficiently and reserved for scientific endeavors like cryogenics and medical research.

Phosphorus, a vital fertilizer for modern agriculture, is also endangered, listed as a "potential future risk." What's needed in the case of phosphorus is just a little reallocation, however. Every year, humans "produce" 3 billion kilograms of phosphorus via urine and feces. We just have to figure out how to get it to the proper places where it can be of use.

If you're worried about humanity exhausting the supply of the endangered elements on the table and winding the clocks back to a pre-technological age, fret not, that won't happen.

"Unlike petroleum, the elements cannot run out, because, apart from helium which can escape into space and uranium which is fissile, the elements are essentially indestructible. Therefore, it is a question of human activity taking elements from relatively concentrated deposits and distributing them so thinly over the planet that they are no longer easily recoverable," Poliakoff said.

Chemists, many of whom view the situation as an awesome opportunity to flex their mental muscles, are already working to catalyze solutions. Chief among these efforts are innovative chemical methods to recycle the elements in consumer electronics.

Market forces will also spur action, Roderick Eggert, Deputy Director of the Critical Materials Institute, said from the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference last year. Exploration will increase, research and development will vastly improve efficiency, and certain elements may be substituted in products. Government can facilitate these processes through providing funds and streamlining regulation, he added.

The original periodic table immortalized the elements for all to see. The periodic table of endangered elements reminds us that we still must use them responsibly.

(Image: Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network)

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