The modern electronics industry relies on inputs and supply chains, both material and technological, and none of them are easy to bypass. These include, besides expertise and manufacturing facilities, the actual materials that go into electronic components. Some of them are as common as silicon
; rare earth minerals
, not so much. One story linked from Slashdot a few years back predicted that then-known supplies would be exhausted by 2017
, though such predictions of scarcity are notoriously hard to get right
, as people (and prices) adjust to changes in supply. There's no denying that there's been a crunch on rare earths, though, over the last several years. The minerals themselves aren't necessarily rare in an absolute sense, but they're expensive to extract.
The most economically viable deposits are found in China, and rising prices for them as exports to the U.S., the EU, and Japan have raised political hackles
. At the same time, those rising prices have spurred exploration and reexamination of known deposits off the coast of Japan
, in the midwestern U.S.
, and elsewhere.
Alex King is director of the Critical Materials Institute
, a part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory
. CMI is heavily involved in making rare earth minerals slightly less rare by means of supercomputer analysis
; researchers there are approaching the ongoing crunch by looking both for substitute materials for things like gallium, indium, and tantalum, and easier ways of separating out the individual rare earths (a difficult process). One team there is working with "ligands – molecules that attach with a specific rare-earth – that allow metallurgists to extract elements with minimal contamination from surrounding minerals" to simplify the extraction process. We'll be talking with King soon; what questions would you like to see posed? (This 18-minute TED talk from King
is worth watching first, as is this Q&A