A recent study by Yale University has underlined the importance of mobile phone recycling. What the researchers at Yale discovered was that some metals can now be considered ‘endangered’ because of their use in mobile phone technology.
What is criticality?
On average there are 41 different elements in the typical smartphone, and in 2014, 1.2 billion people throughout the world bought one. Consequently, there is now a disturbing imbalance concerning supply and demand. This is referred to as ‘criticality’.
From the Periodic Table, 62 metallic-based elements were checked at Yale regarding their criticality. Assessing the elements allowed researchers to determine which elements were most at risk, and what long-term impact these findings may have on modern technology.
Three things establish metal criticality. These are: supply risk, possible impact on the environment, and vulnerability to supply restriction, which is also known as VSR.
In basic terms, supply risk indicates that the relevant affected raw material has a high chance of eventually running out. VSR as an index calculates the likelihood of a specific element ending up becoming restricted. This is done in two ways – how much it is used and how much there is of it. When appropriate, supply of the affected element is then limited from countries and companies. The environmental aspect revolves around the mining impact of specific elements on the environment, together with the impact from the actual elements themselves. The level of the impact, when high, can then lead to restrictions being recommended. A past example of this was lead, which became used less in products because of the environmental risk.
The metals at most risk
Professor Thomas Graedel led the Yale University research, and, by utilising the three categories, could determine the metals and metalloids that were the most affected. Professor Graedel revealed that the metals not at risk were common manufacturing metals, such as zinc, copper and aluminium. But, the types of newer or rarer metals that are used in the manufacture of smartphones were under threat. These included medical imaging and infrared optics.
Gold and mercury were found to have a dramatic environmental impact, with steel alloying elements scoring highly in the VSR index. Supply risk was found to be high among the metal used in smartphones and gadgets, including gallium and selenium. Following Yale University’s findings, Professor Graedel hopes that companies will be more careful about the types of elements they choose for their products in the future.
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