Future Element Shortage: the Problems and the Challenges of Running Low


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Shortage of phosphorus may affect fertilizers production for agriculture. Photo by Pixabay

A shortage of phosphorus may affect fertilizer production for agriculture. Photo by Pixabay

Chemical elements such as phosphorus (P) and dysprosium (Dy) will be limited in the future. Even although they may sound insignificant, a limitation of the availability of even just these two elements will have significant impacts on  technological development and on our lives.

Chemical Elements: Long-Term Availability

The long-term scarcity of oil, and the possible problems associated with the reduction in fossil-fuel supply, is a well known problem that most people have heard of.

Fewer people, however, will have heard about the possible future scarcity of some chemical elements. Although this is a less popular issue, it is a very serious one that our society has to face, as the shortage of some elements will have a noticeable effect on our lifestyle. Some of these elements are essential for our lives in different fields – from agriculture to green technologies.

Phosphorus Shortage

We use phosphorus for a variety of purposes; mainly in the production of fertilizers, but also to produce food additives and rust-prevention agents.

Although phosphorus is not currently considered a scarce element, a 2009 Nature study indicates that phosphorus reserves may be depleted in about 50 years, if we continue to use this element at the same rate as we use it today. The main reasons for the swift depletion of phosphorus are the growth in the world population, and of the global economy.

In recent years the price of phosphorus increased greatly due to geographical and political issues. For example, many phosphorus mines are located in China in the Sichuan region – and extraction was affected by the 2008 earthquake, bringing down supply and raising prices.

Periodic table of elements. Photo by Ivan Griffin.

Will there be a shortage of many elements in the future? Photo by Ivan Griffin.

Rare Earth Elements and Dysprosium (Dy)

Rare earth elements (or metals) are 17 elements, which include all lanthanides plus yttrium and scandium (see the Periodic Table picture to the left). These elements are called “rare” not because they are really scarce, but because it is difficult to find them in a high enough concentration that it is profitable to extract them. Dysprosium (Dy), in particular, is one these elements, with atomic number and weight of 66 and 162.50 respectively.

Despite not being very well known, rare earth elements are employed in different areas, such as mechanics and electronics, although new research is using rare earth elements in a variety of new applications, such as the water-repellent surfaces created at MIT.

Due to these new applications for rare earth elements, their use has increased remarkably in recent years. According to the US Department of Energy, the global demand for rare earth elements grew by a factor of about five from 1980 to the present.

Dysprosium is one of the most important rare earth metals. Its main use is to manufacture permanent magnets; here, its addition ensure that the magnetic properties, and hence the magnets functionality, remains unaltered at higher temperatures. This makes the magnets suitable for applications such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and industrial motors.

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