This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Disappearing Elements?

I assume that very few organic chemists lie awake at nights worrying about running out of chemicals with which to play. Even when the oil fields in the Middle East run out, huge untapped fields in Russia along with the 400 billion barrels of oil now thought to be under the arctic should keep the organikers happy for a long time. And this doesn’t even include the vast oil sand reserves in Canada. Inorganic chemists don’t have quite the same security blanket. Sure, if your project involves highly abundant elements like Fe or Si, then you’re golden. But what about the rarer elements? In one of my first posts to this blog, I mentioned a report which discussed the depletion of the world’s supply of helium. Since helium is not a renewable resource, when it’s gone, it’s gone. As the world’s demand for inorganic chemicals continues to grow, we are eventually going to run out of them, or least they’ll become rare enough to no longer be a commodity.

Back in January I ran across an article discussing the stock price of First Solar, a maker of solar panels. Their panels are based on cadmium telluride thin film technology. In 2006, First Solar consumed about 4% of the world’s annual supply of tellurium, an element even rarer than platinum. First Solar’s stated intent is to quadruple their output of solar cells, which would require 16% of the world’s supply. Since other solar cell companies are also beginning to gear up using similar technologies you can imagine what this is going to do to the supply of tellurium. Think what’s going to happen to the price of CD-RWs, DVD-RWs, and rewriteable Blu-Ray discs, all of which depend upon Te.

And even if we don’t completely run out of an element, the cost may rise to the point at which we can no longer afford to do any chemistry with it. Back in the last millennium, automakers were all hot to convert their Pt/Rh based catalytic convertors into (mostly) Pd based catalysts. There were both advantages and disadvantages to this move, but one of the main driving forces was price. Due to a smaller market, Pd was about 4 times cheaper than Pt and, at one point, about 10 times cheaper than Rh. Even though Pd catalysts require much higher metal loadings, the overall price was still cheaper. This love affair with Pd died down some when some accountants actually calculated the total amount of Pd needed for this switchover and discovered that there might not be enough Pd available in the world to do this, especially if all the car companies started using Pd. And, of course, as soon as the interest in Pd started to rise, so did the price, negating much of the original advantage of Pd. (I realize that noble metal prices have more to do with the stranglehold the mines in South Africa have over the market as opposed to true market forces, but that would just ruin this part of the story, so I’m ignoring it.) So before you plan your next research project, make sure you pick an element which has a long future.


Anonymous said...

On a somewhat related note, demand for Tantalum -- for capacitors -- was part of the drive behind Africa's great war. The DRC having most of the worlds supply of the relatively rare metal.

This is just one of the more extreme examples of what happens when those rare elements start disappearing. It makes you wonder what bad things might happen in South America if Tellurium becomes a hot commodity.

Andrew Depeluche said...

As a chemistry student, I find this incredibly disturbing.
Interestingly enough, your blog made me curious about looking into inorganic chemistry as a field, and this post has made me less curious, haha.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Hey! SOME of us organikers also have to worry about indium, which isn't exactly the most abundant thing in the world. Then again, a lot of people should probably be concerned about indium.
I wonder how far decent electronics recycling programs would go toward ensuring some supply?

Chemist Ken said...

Don't give up on inorganic chemistry yet, Andrew. There are still plenty of elements left to play around with.