Support Marketplace

Why the metals used in tech products are... irreplaceable

A hostess stands next to curved 3D OLED high-definition flat-screen televisions at the LG stand at the IFA 2013 consumer electronics trade fair on September 5, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. The metals used to make these televisions will eventually run out.

Yale University is out with a study this week that finds many of the elements on the periodic table that help power everything from smart phones to flat screen televisions are irreplaceable, which could pose problems for the tech industry.

Devices like tablets -- even cars -- are powered by a complex web of metals that are totally unique in their functions.

Barbara Reck, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and co-author of the study, says that means elements can’t be substituted.

“Let’s take flat screen displays for TVs or on the smartphones," Reck says. "For each of the different colors you need a specific element. There’s no other (way) to get a beautiful, really nice red except that you have europium, which is one of the rare earth metals.”

If there’s a shortage in one or several of these elements, it could pose problems for manufacturers, she says.

“If there’s an issue, the answers may not be as straightforward as one may think by just taking another metal," Reck says.

The more tech products, the more demand for these metals.

And for now, says Gareth Hatch, principal of Technology Metals Research, "there’s no substitute for new production or accessing new material that comes out of the ground.”

Hatch says more needs to be done to recycle and conserve the metals already being used. Which means one day, your old broken cell phone might actually be worth something.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...