A few weeks back I looked at a BBC article which raised the spectre of a worldwide shortage of indium, a rare element much in demand for LCD screens. Despite the BBC's alarm, it appeared that people in the industry were in fact quite sanguine about their ability to meet rising demand.
Roger Harrabin has now picked up the baton in this area, discussing a Green Alliance paper that seeks to encourage recycling and considers metal supply as part of this. As Harrabin explains, according to the paper there is a problem with indium.
Iron and aluminium are so abundant they didn't get a mention. There was little concern expressed for copper, silver or chromium.
But there were substantial worries over the minerals that are gold dust for the new economy: antimony, used in flame-retardants and micro-electronics; the platinum group of metals, used in catalytic converters, fuel cells, phones and hard discs; and lithium, used in batteries.
Indium was a greater concern still - it's used in flat screens and touch screens.
This was a bit of a surprise to me, since, as I mentioned above, people in the industry have no great concerns about supply. So I wondered how it was that the Green Alliance might conclude otherwise.
Their report is a meta analysis of seven studies, by bodies such as Defra, the House of Commons Science and Technology COmmittee, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, and the EU. Here are some of the relevant excerpts:
-more than 81% of the EU’s imports of indium originate in China
- recycling possibilities for indium are limited mainly to manufacturing residues, whereas substitution is possible in some applications only
Primary indium production, a by-product of zinc production, may decrease as a result of market zinc surplus. This may also mean that producers are unable to respond quickly to increases in demand. The impact of restrictions on exports by major indium suppliers could also result in market uncertainty. The most critical activity to maintain balance between supply and demand is perhaps the ability of countries to recover indium from electrical components and scrap, although much of the potential reserves for recovery are likely still in use by businesses, and until discarded will not be available for the global market for recovery.
Defra (and do I detect some similarities between the Defra text and the SEPA one?)
Primary indium production, as a by product of zinc production, may decrease as a result of market zinc surplus. This may also mean that indium producers are unable to respond quickly to increases in demand. The impact of restrictions on exports by major indium suppliers could also result in market uncertainty. The most critical activity to maintain balance between supply and demand is the ability of countries to recover indium from electrical components and scrap.
You get the drift. Indium comes from China, it's a by product of zinc production and it's not recycled.
Except the problem is that this appears to be only half the story. EU indium supply may well come from China (why is that a problem?) but there are large indium resources in North and South America amongst other places. And according to this document from the US Geological Survey indium was already being recycled from scrap LCDs in Japan in 2004.
The truth appears to be that there is precisely no problem with indium supply. As if to confirm the point, here is the latest from the Indium Corporation, the world's largest supplier of the metal:
According to the U.S. Geological Survey statistics, the worldwide output of indium metal has increased 7X since 1980. We believe that this trend will continue and supply will expand to meet demand.
The indium supply has been bolstered by continued improvement in recycling programs. In the rapidly growing LCD market, greater than 85% of non-deposited indium is reclaimed and returned to the supply chain.
We believe the currently-observed price fluctuations are primarily due to a time lag between emerging demand and available supply. As has been observed in previous cycles, the Indium Corporation believes higher prices will draw forward additional supplies which will alleviate any scarcity.
It's almost as if the Green Alliance and the civil servants who prepared the underlying reports are all operating in a parallel universe, one which bears no meaningful relationship to the one in which indium is actually produced and bought and sold and turned into useful goods.
I think what we are seeing is environmentalists pushing their ideological agenda, civil servants trying to expand their bureaucratic territories, and the BBC acting as cheerleader. It just leaves you wondering what happened to the public interest in all this.