Alloy Profusion, Spice Metals, and Resource Loss by Design

Thomas E. Graedel and 1 other contributor

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    One of the most unfortunate attributes of technology's routine and widespread use of most of the elements in the periodic table is the abysmal functional recycling rates that result from the complexity of modern technology and the rudimentary technological state of the recycling industry. In this work, we demonstrate that the vast profusion of alloys, and the complexities and miniaturization of modern electronics, render functional recycling almost impossible. This situation is particularly true of "spice metals": metals employed at very low concentrations to realize modest performance improvements in advanced alloys or complex electronics such as smartphones or laptops. Here, we present a formal definition of spice metals and explore the significant challenges that product design decisions impose on the recycling industry. We thereby identify nine spice metals: scandium (Sc), vanadium (V), gallium (Ga), arsenic (As), niobium (Nb), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te), erbium (Er), and hafnium (Hf). These metals are considered fundamental for the properties they provide, yet they are rarely recycled. Their routine use poses severe problems for the implementation of closed material loops and the circular economy. Based on the data and discussions in this paper, we recommend that spice metals be employed only where their use will result in a highly significant improvement, and that product designers place a strong emphasis on enabling the functional recycling of these metals after their first use.