The darker side
But, as Patrick Wäger, the initiator of this Technology Briefing and an expert on scarce metals, explained, everything has a darker side to it. Raw materials which can only be mined and refined in a few countries, for which alternatives are not easy to find and which have a low rate of recycling must are considered to be critical. China, for example, almost completely controls the supply of rare earth metals from which high-performance permanent magnets are manufactured. Wäger, who is a staff member of Empas Technology and Society laboratory, added that by imposing export restrictions the Chinese government has forced prices to rise, leading to delivery bottlenecks. Currently great efforts are being made to reduce this dependency by expanding supply capacities outside of China, such as in the USA, Australia or Greenland with implications also for the environment.
Tantalum, required for high-performance micro-capacitors, is viewed in the microelectronics industry as a material which is difficult to substitute, and to date it has not been possible to recover it from end-of-life products. Particularly worrying are the facts that tantalum is illegally mined in certain Central African countries under degrading conditions, and the profits from its sale are used to finance civil wars.