Rare material shortages could put gadgets at risk

Computer chip The study looked at many of the elements commonly used in technology

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Modern technology is too reliant on rare materials whose scarcity could drastically set back innovation, a new report has warned.

It suggested that as more and more devices are manufactured, supplies of key elements, particularly metals, will be strained.

Potential substitute materials are either inadequate or non-existent, researchers said.

One scientist called the findings "an important wake-up call".

Andrea Sella, of University College London - who was unconnected to the study - told website The Conversation that it was the first time the issue had been explored in such detail.

Researchers at Yale University, led by Prof Thomas Graedel, analysed the use of 62 metals or metalloids commonly found in popular technology, such as smartphones.

Troubling

It found that none of the 62 had alternatives that performed equally well. Twelve had no alternative, Prof Graedal found.

The scope for serious disruption because of material shortages is increasingly troubling technology companies.

Rare materials are expensive to extract, and their processing comes with considerable environmental concerns.

In April 2012, the BBC's Ian Hardy discovered the effect that mass flooding in Thailand had on the technology supply chain

Political factors also play a part: in 2010, China restricted the export of some materials, known as rare earth elements.

It said this was because of environmental issues, but some observers noted that the restrictions had two distinct effects - the price of the elements increased fivefold, and Chinese companies were simultaneously given the upper hand in using the precious materials at lower cost.

Disrupted

Natural disasters bring another unpredictable risk.

In 2011, serious flooding in Thailand disrupted global supply chains as the country is a hub for hardware manufacture.

Shortages of storage devices extended well into 2012, according to research company IHS iSuppli, with hard-drive supplies the hardest hit.

The Yale report concluded: "As wealth and population increase worldwide in the next few decades, scientists will be increasingly challenged to maintain and improve product utility by designing new and better materials, but doing so under potential constraints in resource availability."

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