UN panel sees future shortage of specialty metals

Thu May 13, 2010 11:03pm BST

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* Recycling rates for some metals under 1 pct, panel says

* Panel urges increasing use of existing metals stocks

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS, May 13 (Reuters) - Recycling rates for many specialty metals used in high-tech devices are so low -- often less than 1 percent -- that they may become unavailable in two to three decades, a U.N.-appointed panel said on Thursday.

The figure was disclosed as the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) began issuing a series of reports on metals, designed to encourage more recycling of existing metal stocks rather than depending on fresh mining for ores.

Thomas Graedel, a member of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management set up by UNEP, said that without recycling the increasing use of specialty metals by the electronics industry would strain their availability.

At a U.N. news conference, he cited the case of indium, used in liquid crystal display glass, semiconductors, photovoltaic cells and other products. Demand for the metal is set to grow from 1,200 tons this year to 2,600 tons in 2020.

"Currently we think that recycling rates for indium are below one percent. We think that's the case for almost all the specialty metals," said Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University.

He said that while he was not predicting the materials would run out altogether, "we do think there is a reasonable prospect that over the next two or three decades some materials may be in short enough supply so that they will become essentially unavailable as routine materials for industry.

Prices for such metals could in turn rise, changing the way they were typically used, said Graedel in releasing preliminary findings of a report the panel plans to publish in full in October.

Other metals whose recycling rates the panel said needed to be improved included neodymium, used in wind turbine magnets, and gallium, used for light emitting diodes in indicator lamps and lighting.

RECOVERY UNECONOMIC

Graedel cited information from microchip maker Intel Corp. (INTC.O) that the number of elements it used for computers rose from 11 in the 1980s to around 60 now, indicating that it would be hard to maintain current levels of computer performance if newer specialty metals became unavailable.

He suggested that one reason for the poor recycling rates was the very small quantities of the metals used in each device, making recovery uneconomic. But better design could make the metals easier to recycle, he said.

In a separate report, the U.N. panel detailed what it said was a substantial shift in metals stocks from underground ores to existing products. "These 'mines above ground' have growing potential for future metals supply," it said.

Above-ground copper amounts to about 50 kg (112 pounds) for every person on earth, compared with more than two tons of iron, the panel said. The recycling rate for steel is about 75 percent but for copper between 25 and 50 percent, it found.

UNEP chief Achim Steiner told the news conference the rising cost of polluting could force companies to recycle more metals. Greenhouse gas emissions from recycling aluminum, for instance, are 12 times lower than primary production, the panel said.

(Editing by Paul Simao)