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We hold technology metals in the palms of our hands. But for how much longer?

Mobile phones, iPads and cars all contain precious materials whose supply may run out faster than we think

I can remember when the idea of a touchscreen phone was the thing of fantasy, straight out of the Back to the Future films. But who can remember a time when you needed both hands and bulging biceps just to hold your mobile phone? It’s easy to forget the remarkable recent advances in technology that have made lightweight, technologically sophisticated gadgets possible.

Futurists have predicted a future world full of even more exciting technologies, miniature gizmos and sustainable and environmentally friendly energy resources.

But this fantastic future is at risk.

The motors, batteries, solar cells and display devices necessary for many of these appliances rely on what are known as technology metals. Scientists, at the British Science Festival in Bradford, have warned of the future risks attached to using these increasingly indispensable elements.

Researchers from the British Geological Survey (BGS) have released a risk list for the relative supply of these technology metals containing 52 elements mined and consumed globally. The list highlights vulnerable elements where global production is concentrated in a small number of countries.

The relative supply risk index gives a score for each metal from very low risk to very high risk. The score is calculated by considering the abundance, where the mines are located and the world bank stability index. A country’s stability is determined by political stability, absence of violence, rule of law and control of corruption.

So, for a high risk score, the researchers are not simply saying that mankind will physically run out of these metals – in fact many of them are in abundance – but rather that the risk of them becoming unavailable is high.

The highest scores on the list clearly show that China dominates the global production of metals. For example, almost all production of what are known as rare earth elements are in China. As a result, prices for this element have risen sharply in the past two years and this is a major concern for manufacturers, particularly the car industry. This will also have a knock-on effect for you and me, the consumer. Similar behaviour could be expected for other elements when one country dominates production.

But most of us are not expert chemists, so what are these chemical elements on the risk list used for? Many of them have a direct effect on our lives.

You may be reading this while reclining in your favourite chair. Most sofas, chairs, seats and the like contain a flame retardant consisting of antimony. This is the highest ranking element on the risk list, due to it being almost solely produced in China.

If you were to get off the sofa, you may try your hand at some DIY. Tungsten is the key hard metal and can be found in nearly all cutting tools because it’s hard, tough and doesn’t wear down quickly. Obviously this is crucial not only for putting up shelves but for large-scale manufacturing.

Rare earth elements are a collection of 17 different elements that have become very important in recent years. They can be found in most hi-tech devices such as computers or phones and in industrial magnets. Again these are principally produced in China, with 99% of global production.

Mobile phones also contain a number of different other elements that appear on the risk list. New smaller, lightweight batteries rely on lithium and the underside of the display screen contains indium.

With Apple’s recent iPhone and iPad in particular, the public have embraced touchscreen technology. This is made possible by using the high risk element niobium. This metal is also used in MRI scanners and oil pipelines. The main provider of this element is Brazil.

And it’s not just gadgets and gizmos that rely on these elements. They are very important in the effort to protect the environment.

Wind farms are increasingly popular as governments look to diversify their sources of energy. There have recently been some significant wind turbine projects completed in the UK with the Gunfleet Sands, Robin Rigg and Thanet. These turbines are made using the high-risk rare earth metals.

Closer to home, if you own a car in the UK it must have a catalytic converter to convert toxic exhaust emissions from the engine into non-toxic substances. These are commonly manufactured using metals from the very high risk platinum group of elements which are produced principally in South Africa and Russia.

Clearly, technology metals are and will be very important indeed.

The risk list highlights and quantifies the need for countries to secure a reliable supply of technology metals for the future. It also makes me even more thankful for my now indispensable mobile phone. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds