Only about 150 years ago, almost all materials in a person’s home came from a nearby forest or quarry. By the 1960s, with more developed supply lines and more consumer appliances, the average American home contained about 20 different elements.
Since then, a revolution has transformed the products we use and the materials that allow them to work. Products now rely on elements that were once mere scientific oddities just a couple decades ago. In the 1990s Intel used only 15 elements in its computer chips.
Now the company demands close to 60 elements. While rare metals have been around since the beginning of time, most were just discovered in the past few hundred years, and some just in the past century.
This transformation in the products we use appear subtle to the untrained eye. Modern lights, for example, emanate hues slightly different from predecessors. But these subtle changes mask a profound change in resource use. Whereas Edison’s lightbulb contained a simple metal filament, the resources in today’s LED lights are more akin to computer hardware, powered by gallium, indium and rare-earth elements.
Today, the collective impacts of our individual purchasing decisions and the technologies we use have significant ramifications on the resources we use, especially rare-metal supplies.
From 1980 to the present, mining companies have produced four times the amount of many if not all rare metals versus the amount they produced from the dawn of civilization until 1980.
These metals have brought forth digital technologies that transformed not only the ways we travel, communicate and shop but also our expectations. We have come to demand that technologies will become cheaper, lighter, more accessible and more powerful each year — and that they do far more than once thought possible.
Although the multiple functions of our new gadgets appear to come with the opportunity to use fewer raw materials — after all, the iPhone is a computer, book, and music player — the reality is we use far more total resources.
By 2017, there will be an estimated 1.5 billion smartphones in the world. They contain more metals, in greater amounts and often at higher grades, than their predecessors. For example, 4g smartphones use 6 to 10 times more gallium than a regular cellphone just several years before.
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