Friday, February 15, 2013

Material Efficiency: Rare and Critical Metals

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Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society A Mathematical, Physical & Engineering Sciences 371, 1986 (2013)

In the last few decades, progress in electronics, especially, has resulted in important new uses for a number of geologically rare metals, some of which were mere curiosities in the past. Most of them are not mined for their own sake (gold, the platinum group metals and the rare Earth elements are exceptions) but are found mainly in the ores of the major industrial metals, such as aluminium, copper, zinc and nickel. We call these major metals ‘attractors’ and the rare accompanying metals ‘hitch-hikers’. The key implication is that rising prices do not necessarily call forth greater output because that would normally require greater output of the attractor metal. We trace the geological relationships and the functional uses of these metals. Some of these metals appear to be irreplaceable in the sense that there are no known substitutes for them in their current functional uses. Recycling is going to be increasingly important, notwithstanding a number of barriers.