In a Scientific
American article titled "Elemental
Urgency," Jennifer Hackett reported on a paper
published in 2013 by Yale University's Thomas Graedel
et al regarding the availability (or unavailability) of the raw elements - and suitable substitutes - used extensively in
modern manufacturing. Unlike half a century ago when most products were made from relatively common and easily obtainable
elements like lead, iron, tin, nickel, aluminum, carbon, zinc, silicon, and even silver and gold, many more elements are
now regularly included in mass manufacturing processes.
Rhenium (Re), used in high strength, temperature alloys to applications like jet engine turbine blades and as a catalyst
in chemical processes, is one of the most critically rated elements for uniqueness. Ditto for titanium.
Yttrium (Y), used in the familiar YIG oscillator and
YAG laser, is another critical element. Keep in mind that this chart rates elements not solely according to scarcity, but
how critical they are in processes where no other element can be substituted in the event of a shortage. Lead (Pb) is a
clear example of an element that is abundantly available, but the materials in which it is used cannot be easily replaced
with another element. Compounding the issue is the rate at which product manufacturing is increasing over time, which requires
a rapidly expanding availability of raw materials.
Whereas a paid SciAm subscription is required to view Graedel's "The Periodic Table of Substitute Performance" graphic
(thumbnail to the upper right), the original is freely accessed in "On the materials basis of modern society." This
abstract statement in the paper sums up the situation alarmingly well:
"It is indisputable that modern life is enabled by the use of materials in its technologies. Those technologies do many
things very well, largely because each material is used for purposes to which it is exquisitely fitted. The result over
time has been a steady increase in product performance. We show that this materials complexity has markedly increased in
the past half-century and that elemental life cycle analyses characterize rates of recycling and loss. A further concern
is that of possible scarcity of some of the elements as their use increases. Should materials availability constraints occur,
the use of substitute materials comes to mind. We studied substitution potential by generating a comprehensive summary of
potential substitutes for 62 different metals in all their major uses and of the performance of the substitutes in those
applications. As we show herein, for a dozen different metals, the potential substitutes for their major uses are either
inadequate or appear not to exist at all. Further, for not 1 of the 62 metals are exemplary substitutes available for all
You might be interested in a report I wrote in 2011 titled, "Afghanistan's
Buried Riches - Rare Earths & More," that helped to shed light on why it is countries are so invested (literally)
in obtaining access to even the most dangerous regions on Earth in order to mine valuable elements and minerals. It is no
doubt a large part of the reason troops are still there after more than a decade - they are protecting the investments of
political donor companies (to Democrat, Republican, and Independent).
These items are an archive of past Topical Smorgasbord items that have appeared on the RF Cafe homepage. In keeping with the "cafe"
genre, these tidbits of information are truly a smorgasbord of topics. They all pertain to topics that are related to the general engineering
and science theme of RF Cafe. Note: There is also a huge collection of my 'Factoids' (aka 'Kirt's Cogitations') that might interest you as well.
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Posted May 31, 2016