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September 8th, 2010
Rare supply: the trace minerals powering our gadgets
Technological innovation has brought us wonderful new tools for modern life, but some experts believe supply is lagging behind demand for the rare minerals that make them possible.
Indium is a trace element that has been in commercial use only in the last 20 years. Professor Michael Cortie, Director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology Sydney says demand for indium has been driven by the rapid up-take of flat-screen monitors and mobile phones that use LCD screens.
In flat-panel devices such as LCDs and touch-screen mobiles, indium tin oxide (ITO) is used as a thin coat around the screen. This thin layer of ITO conducts electricity away from the front panel - a technical innovation necessary for the trend towards touch-screen monitors.
"The problem is, unfortunately, indium is relatively scarce in the crust and wherever it does occur, it occurs in groups and so to my knowledge, it is never mined directly for its own sake - it's always a byproduct of something else.
"If indium was a byproduct of a mine producing copper or zinc for example, when that mine closes down because of falling copper or zinc prices, it is no longer viable to mine indium for its own sake," Cortie says.
The U.S. Geological Survey 2010 notes that 600 tonnes of indium was refined in 2009, but says no indicators are available to say how much may be left in reserves around the world.
Professor Chennupati Jagadish, Head of Semiconductor Optoelectronics and Nanotechnology at the Australian National says material scientists are looking at aluminium dope zinc oxide as an alternative to indium.
"Aluminum has got really high abundance and zinc has got really high abundance, so from that point, it's not really an issue," he says.
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