Sustainable Technologies For The Next Decade

Prophets, priests, scientists and environmentalists have been gleefully predicting the end of the world for several millennia but it wont happen. One of the reasons that the human species has been so successful has been our ability to adapt to changing environments, enabling us, like viruses, to colonise almost every part of the planet, and make use of every available resource.

But there is a problem – we have made use of every available resource, and while some, like silicon make up 25.7% of the Earth’s crust by weight and are to all intents and purposes inexhaustible, many others such as indium are not. The problem is compounded by many of the scarcer elements being a small cog in a large wheel, so while materials such as aluminium, steel and many plastics can and are recycled, recovering the small amounts of indium from broken touch screens is neither feasible or cost effective.

So what can we do with increasingly scarce resources? The problems with elements, as opposed to compounds, is that as fundamental building blocks we cannot create more material, and nor is there an abundant source of material containing the elements in question. If we need hydrogen or oxygen they can be simply made from water, but there are few abundant compounds containing rare earths. As a result we need to find a new solution, and quickly.

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