The periodic table, in danger of extinction: this is how we are depleting the planet's resources

The periodic table, in danger of extinction: this is how we are depleting the planet’s resources, A previous version of this article was published in 2017.

“The planet is running out.” “Its resources are finite.” On a regular basis, we tend to associate these phrases with elements such as oil, coal, natural gas, the many minerals that we extract from the subsoil or even wood. Now, what happens when we analyze the state of conservation of the elements of the periodic table ? That we are faced with a disturbing picture.

For millennia, humanity has extracted resources from the earth without much consideration . Its state of conservation was not a problem. Over time, we have discovered that we are not good at preserving the natural source of our wealth. Neither do the chemical elements. With this great and very simple graph , the American Chemical Society wanted to illustrate how there are also many of them in danger of extinction in the near future and long term.

As we saw at the time , the table is not a mere scientific description of the chemical elements that we can find in our environment. It is also a compendium of products that are used in a vast array of industrial and artisanal processes. From the creation of solar panels to the production of cars, we depend on them to keep our world going. But they also sell out: there are 44 whose stocks have been drastically depleted. And that represents a problem.

Let’s think about the phosphor : it is ubiquitous in our environment, even if we don’t even think about it (the matches). But it is not the only one: hafnium, zinc (!), Gallium, silver, tellurium and even helium! they are at serious risk of starvation, or of being completely depleted, in less than a century. Many of them are minerals that are compulsively and systematically mined to sustain contemporary industry and production. However, if we do not find solutions and / or substitutes, we could run out of them.

The case of gallium is Very particular. On 2008 was already writing about his imminent “death” . It is a very rare mineral, blue and white, discovered as late as 1831 and unusual properties: its melting point is very low and it oxidizes with difficulty, which is why we have used it in products that required products that could operate at very high temperatures for a long time. Can you think of any? You have it in front of you: your mobile, your computer and your TV made up of liquid crystal. They all depend on gallium.

What’s up? That gallium is difficult to extract (there are no concentrated mines as such), and that we usually find it in other materials such as zinc or aluminum. And since there is little, it is difficult to extract and much used, we have led it to the brink of disappearance . It is a problem to which we may find a solution, but it is indicative of the extent to which the process can be identical in the case of other equally critical materials. Our future also depends on its conservation.

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