Periodic table: saving endangered elements from extinction

The periodic table is considered one of the most important and influential achievements in modern science reflecting the essence not only of chemistry, but also of physics, biology and other disciplines.

25 February 2020

Colorful Periodic Table of the Elements - shows atomic number, symbol, name, atomic weight, electrons per shell, state of matter and element category

By Eloise Bevan, Innovation Funding Consultant at ABGI UK

The United Nations announced that 2019 was the international year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements, to commemorate its creation 150 years ago by Dimitri Mendeleev.

The periodic table is considered “one of the most important and influential achievements in modern science reflecting the essence not only of chemistry, but also of physics, biology and other disciplines”. When first created, only 63 elements had been identified. Mendeleev used the properties of these elements to create the organised rows, columns and groups, by atomic mass. Gaps once present in the periodic table have since been filled, and 90 natural elements have been identified.

Through the continued scientific research in the field of materials the number of products that can be manufactured is limited only by imagination and advanced technological systems continue to be developed. In addition to celebrating the advancements made to and in science, the UN wanted to highlight the importance of the earth’s natural resources for sustainable development, and their social and economic impacts.

Vice-president of the European Chemical Society (EuChemS), Dr. David Cole-Hamilton, developed an adapted periodic table that, to a logarithmic scale, visually demonstrates the relative abundance of each element (see Figure 1). In addition, the elements are colour coded to convey which elements are in plentiful supply, which have a limited availability, which can come from conflict minerals, and those which represent a rising and serious threat to supply in the next 100 years.

90 elements

Figure 1 – The 90 natural elements that make up everything.

As shown, there are 12 elements that currently fall into the serious threat category. In using the elements for the numerous developments of different products they become dispersed and are increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain (harvesting and recycling issues). In turn this can limit future development capabilities and have worldwide consequences on societies, economies and environments.

To prevent a serious shortage of elements from occurring, Dr. Cole-Hamilton identified the following actions individuals can take:

Recycle your Smart phones!

Recycling our electronic devices is key. The phone icon displayed on elements in Figure 1 has been used to convey which are commonly used in the production of smart phones. Approximately 31 elements are used in total, of these six are a serious threat, two are rising threats and 11 are limited in their availability. It has been estimated that about 10 million smartphones are discarded or replaced every month in the EU alone. There are over 40 million unused mobile phones and gadgets sitting in drawers in UK households. Statistics demonstrate that 51% of people have 1 spare mobile and 42% have 5 or more! Aim to use your mobile for at least five years before upgrading compared with the current annual turnover.

Currently, up to 80% of a smart phone is recyclable, and the scarcity of the rare earth elements that are contained within each and every one of these highlights the urgent message to recycle them once used. DO NOT landfill old mobile phones. The issue in doing so is two-fold. Firstly, the environmental hazard because of the chemicals they contain, can leach into groundwater systems and affect local ecosystems and potentially drinking water. Secondly, the huge waste of the rare and precious metals. Although the quantity of metal in a single phone is small, the total amount discarded adds up to a considerable amount. For example, a tonne of mobile phones can contain 300 grams of gold, compared to an average tonne of gold ore which contains 5 grams of gold. It is thought that around 70% of all heavy metals in USA landfills come from mobile phones. If a phone is not at the end of its working life, it can be refurbished for reuse. If it is at the end of its life, the elements can be extracted.

The six serious shortage elements that are used in a smart phone and are needed for other applications include;

  1. Gallium: Solar panels, anti-cancer medicines, LEDs;
  2. Arsenic: Microchips, Preventing disease;
  3. Yttrium: Camera lenses, screen backing, anti-cancer medicine;
  4. Silver: Microelectronics, antibacterial materials, reactive lenses;
  5. Indium: Solar panels, Touchscreens;
  6. Tantalum: Wind turbine blades, rocket nozzles, pacemakers.

To summarise: If you have a spare phone/tablet/wearable lying around at home you should recycle it! The following companies will even pay you to recycle your old gadgets:

Sell for reuse to Music Magpie, Apple or Samsung

Don’t buy helium balloons!

Helium is the second lightest gas and second most abundant in the universe; however, on earth it is relatively rare. It is created from the radioactive decay of heavy elements such as uranium and thorium below the earth’s surface. Helium has been categorised as a serious threat. Balloons once developed in a lab for lab-based experiments by Michael Faraday took off as fascinating floating features at social celebration events. Sadly, any helium that has been used in helium balloons leaves the earth due to its inherently small and lightweight properties and it cannot be recaptured. Alternatively, extremely beneficial applications of Helium includes its use as a cooling medium in MRI scanners, in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, satellite instruments, NASA’s pressure-fed engine rockets, in 80% of car airbags, scuba diving tanks to prevent decompression sickness (the bends), helium-neon gas lasers for scanning barcodes, and for creating an inert environment to produce fibre optics and semiconductors. Approximately 10% of helium is currently used for, and lost because of, balloons.

In conclusion, if the UK continues consuming natural resources at its current rate, we would need three planets to sustain our consumption. It’s time for every individual to take responsibility for their actions by reducing, reusing, recycling and refraining from buying single use items (such as helium balloons!). Everything in the world is cultivated from just 90 elements, we each have a responsibility to ensure we don’t take them and everything around us that is derived from them for granted.