The future availability and cost of important emerging technologies could depend on access to a handful of critical elements.
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Wind turbines, electric vehicles, light-emitting diodes, flat-screen displays, and solar panels all rely on elements that are mined and refined in just a few countries and traded in small quantities. Demand for many of these elements is expected to grow rapidly as these technologies become more commonly used, and impending supply constraints could hold back their growth.
As the wind-power industry expands, for example, demand for the rare-earth element neodymium, a crucial ingredient in the high-strength magnets used in wind turbines, is projected to outstrip supply by 16 percent in 2014. (China controls 97 percent of global production of rare-earth elements.)
The demand for lithium could quadruple as the number of electric cars on the road increases. The battery in every electric car contains several kilograms of lithium, the production of which is concentrated in Australia and a few South American countries. Likewise, demand for indium is expected to grow as sales of solar cells and flat-panel displays rise.
The production of several critical elements by country, as well as total production over time, is shown above.
Information graphic by Tommy McCall and Mike Orcutt
Sources: U.S. Geological Survey; Johnson Matthey; British Geological Survey.
Some percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding. 2010 global production figures are estimates. U.S. production figures for selenium and indium are withheld. The historical production of lithium refers to lithium ore.