Fast Company

The Rarest, Riskiest Elements We Use Every Day

Most of our modern technology is powered by a few very rare elements. Most of those elements aren't found in the United States. Until we find new solutions, we're at the mercy of other countries.

As technology becomes more advanced--largely in the electronics industry, but elsewhere as well--so does our reliance on certain chemical elements. Some of these elements, such as the rare earth metals found in many advanced electronics, are known for being short in supply and concentrated in politically fraught areas. But there are others that are also at risk for supply chain disruption. And if that happens, our economy and lifestyle may be threatened.

Minerals UK revealed this week its Risk List 2011, a supply risk index for some of the most important elements. The organization ranked the chemical elements based on their availability in the Earth's crust, the location of reserves and production sites, and the political stability in those areas. Unsurprisingly, China extracts over 50% of all the elements on the list. So what are the elements that are most at risk for disruption?

Number one on the list is antimony, which is commonly used as a fire retardant and more recently has been found in microelectronics. Following close behind are the platinum group elements (often used in the electronics industry), mercury (CFL bulbs, anyone?), and tungsten (used in X-ray tubes, superalloys, and incandescent light bulbs). Coal, on the other hand, doesn't pose much of a supply chain risk disruption; it has a risk of just 4.5 out of 10.

It's not exactly comforting to think that easy access to, say, efficient lightbulbs or electric vehicle components is dependent on the whims of China. But unless we work on creating better electronics recycling programs and developing affordable replacements for these elements--and some companies are--we will remain at the mercy of any number of supply chain threats.

[Images: Wikipedia, BGS World Mineral Statistics, Minerals UK]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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