Research ArticleINDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY

By-product metals are technologically essential but have problematic supply

Science Advances  03 Apr 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 3, e1400180
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400180

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Abstract

The growth in technological innovation that has occurred over the past decades has, in part, been possible because an increasing number of metals of the periodic table are used to perform specialized functions. However, there have been increasing concerns regarding the reliability of supply of some of these metals. A main contributor to these concerns is the fact that many of these metals are recovered only as by-products from a limited number of geopolitically concentrated ore deposits, rendering their supplies unable to respond to rapid changes in demand. Companionality is the degree to which a metal is obtained largely or entirely as a by-product of one or more host metals from geologic ores. The dependence of companion metal availability on the production of the host metals introduces a new facet of supply risk to modern technology. We evaluated companionality for 62 different metals and metalloids, and show that 61% (38 of 62) have companionality greater than 50%. Eighteen of the 38—including such technologically essential elements as germanium, terbium, and dysprosium—are further characterized as having geopolitically concentrated production and extremely low rates of end-of-life recycling. It is this subset of companion metals—vital in current technologies such as electronics, solar energy, medical imaging, energy-efficient lighting, and other state-of-the-art products—that may be at the greatest risk of supply constraints in the coming decades.

Keywords
  • critical metals
  • industrial ecology
  • resource management
  • sustainability
  • mineral production

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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