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.