I-phones, I-pads, MRI scanners, solar panels, computer chips, superconductors and spacecrafts, if I asked you what do all of these objects have in common what would you say? That they are all examples of technology, the age of science, products that are improving our lives and future? This all may be true but the answer I was looking for was that all of these products may not be around in the next century.
It may seem bizarre that objects that we associate as symbols of the future may not be around in the future. The rare earth metals and gases used to manufacture these products are non-renewable and are only present on earth in finite amounts. Helium which is critical for superconductors, space exploration and medical technology will run out in 25 years. Global hafnium supplies, which are utilised in the manufacturing of the chip in this computer, is predicted to be exhausted by 2017 (yes,it is the year 2013 now!) The screen you may be reading this off may be an LCD screen and if so say goodbye as indium, the main component, will be exhausted by 2020. Zinc...2037, uranium...2090, copper...2100...
It is disheartening, especially to me as a scientist, that the major advances of the past few years in medicine, nano-and micro-technology will probably not be commercially viable to expand on due to the lack of rare metals, that the recent advances in renewable energy such as hybrid batteries, energy-efficient lighting and solar panels will ironically come to a halt as the non-renewable resources used exhaust. But as well as being disheartened, a worry has begun to creep in as I consider how we are beginning to depend on these new technologies. 28% of helium supplies are used to super-cool magnets for MRI scanners. What will happen when this runs out in less than 30 years? Does anyone have a back-up plan?
We claim to be a caring species who are trying to live sustainably so that the future generations, our children and grandchildren, can have the chance to experience the amazing world that we live in today. Unfortunately, they will have to deal with the past generations mistakes, from climate change to ozone layer depletion and its consequences such as higher global levels of cancers and other diseases. These generations will need much greater control over their environments than we do today and therefore, much better technology in order to survive.
We need to claim responsibility, even if industries and governments won’t. Can more efficient goods with longer lives be designed? Is the recreational use of these rare materials acceptable? Awareness needs to be raised now if we have any chance of halting the exploitation and expiration, as I for one could not live with the guilt of knowing that in the future a sick child may die due to a lack of MRI scanners all because we wasted the helium needed to cool these machines in our party balloons!