The latest touch-screen smartphones have revolutionised the mobile phone industry.
As well as making calls, people expect to read and send email, watch high-definition video, browse the web, and even use sat-nav, all through their phones.
Almost all of these phone touch-screens depend on a rare chemical element: a metal called indium. The indium is used in the technology that works out exactly where a finger has touched the screen. There’s only a finite supply of indium in the world, and it can’t be recycled; it is estimated that in 15 years there will be none left.
One way to overcome the problem is to find ways to recycle the indium; or find a different material that works just as well, to replace indium in touch-screens altogether. Another option is to come up with a completely new type of display screen which does not rely on this rare metal. Each of these options is being investigated by chemists to ensure that they can continue to improve technology without using up the world’s finite resources.
To produce in a more sustainable way the wide range of products that we all rely on, scientists need to find ways to do more using less material. It is estimated that half of all the products that will be needed and available in the next 15 years have not yet been invented.
Sustainable product design
Domestic and industrial rubbish that cannot be recycled is currently buried in landfill sites. These sites are filling up fast, as there is a growing amount of waste that needs to be disposed of. Landfill costs huge amounts of money, is a waste of resources, and is bad for the environment. We need to reduce the amount of waste that we are producing, at home and industrially.
Conservation of scarce natural resources
The average car contains over 30 mineral components, including almost a tonne of iron and steel. Chemical scientists rely on precious metals that are used in many industries. It is difficult to predict how much of these elements the world has left, and how easily we will be able to access them. It is also difficult to predict what the global demand for these elements will be as new products are designed.
Conversion of biomass feedstocks
Corn, sugarcane (ethanol), and soybeans are being used more and more to provide energy, as oil prices rise and renewable energy moves into the spotlight.
These examples of ‘biomass feedstocks’ – any biological matter from organisms, for example plants, vegetation or agricultural waste – are the starting materials for biofuels that can be used as a source of energy to provide electricity, power cars, or heat homes.