The Depleting Elements You Didn’t Know We Were Using

Discussing the future of the commonly known ‘endangered’ elements.

The Depleting Elements You Didn’t Know We Were Using
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The earth has provided its inhabitants with everything they could possibly need not just to sustain life but also to live it comfortably.

To a man from just a few hundred years ago, nature is a gift that keeps on giving. But today, at the peak of consumption, we must take conscious steps towards sustenance.

While environmentalists around the world are urging the world to take steps against pollution and consumption of non-renewable resources, the debate is usually about fossil fuels. Most people fail to include several elements that are depleting quickly.

RELATED: SCIENTISTS REFINE RARE-EARTH ELEMENTS FROM MINING WASTE

Today, many industries use rare metals and non-metals that we aren’t aware of. While the prevailing idea is that we’ll run out of some things one day, the reality is different. 

Extraction and refining of these elements are becoming increasingly difficult and costly. Due to this factor, it might not be feasible to extract them in the near future.

Some of them might even fall under the category of trace elements, which exist in small quantities but are necessary parts of our lives.

Here are a few depleting elements that you should be aware of.

Tungsten

Tungsten
Source: W. Oelen/Wikimedia Commons

Many people have argued that LEDs can never replace the warm glow of a lightbulb. But they have to if we run out of Tungsten.

Tungsten is the metal with the highest melting point of all elements. Hence, it is suited for applications involving heating.

Apart from its usage as Tungsten filament, electrodes, and heating elements, it is also used in metal alloys with heavy applications.

The primary source of Tungsten is Wolframite, which is an iron manganese tungstate mineral. Its supply was primarily based in China, Vietnam, and Russia. 

The mines in China and Vietnam are quickly depleted, while Russia uses up most of the Tungsten it extracts. Other occurrences are not economical to extract.

This leaves the world in a shortage of Tungsten.

Indium

Indium Ingot
Source: Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements/Wikimedia Commons

Indium is a rare metal found as a byproduct of zinc refinement from zinc sulfide ores. It is also known as the softest non-alkali metal.

The material is soft enough to be cut by a knife. It was found by Ferdinand Reich and Hieronymous Richter in 1863.

Indium is named after the violet color lines it displays under a spectroscope. The material finds application in the doping of Germanium semiconductors and to make electrical components like rectifiers and photoconductors. Indium tin oxide is used in making touch screens, flat-screen TVs, and solar panels.

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According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Indium is thrice as abundant as silver, and as the Indium corporation has pointed out, mining rates are lower. However, we can't overlook that most Indium is produced as a by-product, and mining for it will lead to a significant price hike.

There are also methods of increasing the percent Indium yield, but a better solution would be to recover this rare material from waste.

Barium

Barite
Source: James St. John/Flickr

Barium is a highly reactive metal found in mineral deposits in its sulfate or carbonate forms. Barite, a barium sulfate mineral deposit, is its primary source.

It is used in X-rays for imaging the human gastrointestinal tract and is a part of the high-temperature superconductor, YBCO. Barium sulfate is used in oil well drilling fluids.

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It also occurs as a rare gem called benitoite. The usage in tests for the gastrointestinal tract has been restricted to just emergencies because of the shortage in barium sulfate.

Germanium

Germanium
Source: Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements/Wikimedia Commons

Germanium exists as compounds in germanite, argyrodite, and some zinc ores. It is a relatively new addition to the periodic table.

In its pure form, it has properties similar to silicon and is one of the critical elements in the manufacturing of semiconductors. It is used in fiber-optic systems, solar cells, and LEDs.

The tight supply has been pushing up prices while the demand is increasing steadily. It has been labeled as a technology-critical element.

Phosphorus

White Phosphorus
Source: W. Oelen/Wikimedia Commons

Phosphorus exists in many of its compounds due to high reactivity. Its two main forms are white phosphorus and red phosphorus.

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White phosphorus is used in flares, while red phosphorus is used on the sides of matchboxes where the match is struck for lighting it. Ammonium phosphate is used heavily in fertilizers.

The use of phosphorus-rich fertilizers is one of the major causes of the depletion of phosphorus. The phosphorus consumption is projected to increase if proper measures aren’t taken.

People are trying to find more deposits of phosphorus while regulating current use.

Helium

Helium Glow
Source: Jurii/Wikimedia Commons

Even though it is the second most abundant gas in the universe, helium is quite rare on earth. It is the only element on earth that is completely non-renewable. It is present in the atmosphere, but usable helium comes from the ground where it is found as a small part of natural gas.

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Helium is used in inflating balloons. These may be party balloons or scientific balloons. It is also used to create pressure in fuel tanks of a liquid-fueled rocket due to its inert nature. 

It is also used for cooling superconductors such as magnets in MRI machines.

Helium shortage is already here. Though some sites are being examined for providing possible reserves of the gas, it is presently in short supply, and prices have gone up.

Helium is so up high in the atmosphere that it can easily escape into space.

Other elements

While rare elements are endangered because of their short supply and difficulty in extraction, other metals ranging from aluminum, copper and, iron that seem to be in abundance are not entirely out of risk due to overconsumption.

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With a little foresight, steps must be taken to reach a sustainable solution to the lifecycle of these metals.

RELATED: 13 HARMFUL ELEMENTS FOUND IN EVERYDAY PRODUCTS THAT COULD POTENTIALLY KILL HUMANS

Several other elements, such as Lutetium or Ytterbium, are lesser-known, but the trace quantities that they are present in are also depleting rapidly.

As the shortage of natural resources, including these elements, is becoming more evident, it is more important than ever to take steps towards their responsible use.

Running out of some elements can cause a significant setback to the momentum with which technology, particularly computers, is moving forward.

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