When you use your smartphone, you probably don't think of all the elements, or metals, that go into its production.

However, if experts at Yale University are right, those metals could soon be in short supply, meaning that making electronics, such as your smartphone, will get more difficult, as well as more expensive.

In a new study, Yale researchers studied the availability of every metal on the Periodic Table of Elements and found that those used in the production of electronics are the most likely to become less available in the future.

Here's the good news: the metals we most often use in manufacturing, such as zinc, copper and aluminum, will probably be around for a long time.

But it's other metals that are at risk of running out, particularly those used in our smartphones, as well as in other electronics, such as infrared optics and medical imaging.

"Some metals that have become deployed for technology only in the last 10 or 20 years are available almost entirely as byproducts," says Thomas Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University. "You can't mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes. And they don't have any decent substitutes."

But how did the Yale team come up with their estimates of these metals' future availability? They looked at several key factors: the first being how abundant the metals already are geologically. Then they looked at alternative ways metals could be used in production. Finally, the third factor is geopolitics, which means that the politics, mining technology, regulations and economic policies of a region could affect the availability of certain metals.

Here are some of the elements most at risk of becoming less available in the future:

  • Gallium (limited supplies due to supply risk)

  • Selenium (limited supplies due to supply risk)

  • Gold (limited due to environmental implications of mining)

  • Mercury (limited due to environmental implications of mining)

  • Chromium (limited due to supply restrictions)

  • Niobium (limited due to supply restrictions)

  • Tungsten (limited due to supply restrictions)

  • Molybdenum (limited due to supply restrictions)

Another problem with these metals and their future availability is that they're hardly ever recycled because they're created for electronics in such small amounts. Graedel suggests that smartphone manufacturers start thinking more about what happens to their products when they are no longer in use.

"So much of what makes the recycling of these materials difficult is their design," he says. "It seems as if it's time to think a little bit more about the end of these beautiful products."

[Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan | Flickr]

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