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The metals we use in our technology are often taken for granted. One look at the periodic table of elements shows that while many elements used in our devices are still common, ones needed for cutting-edge tech are extremely rare and irreplaceable. According to a 2013 study done by Yale University researchers, many of these metals may become unavailable, especially as emerging markets start to consume technology to catch up to their developed counterparts.

“We all like our gadgets; we all like our smart phones. But in 20 or 30 years, will we still have access to all the elements necessary to provide the particular functions that make a smart phone so great?” said Barbara Reck, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES) and co-author of the study. “Based on our findings, it is unlikely that substitution alone can solve potential supply restrictions for any of the metals on the periodic table,” she said, referring to common metals such as copper, chromium, manganese and lead.

According to the study, these metals have no alternatives—and the even rarer ones, such as rhodium (used for controlling vehicle emissions) and thallium (cardiovascular imaging) also lack substitutes. Rare earth elements such as dysprosium (magnets in computers), europium and yttrium (for flat panel displays), thulium and ytterbium (for lasers) also lack alternatives. These specialty metals are also used in solar panels—which are set to play a bigger role in society as the world’s oil supply dwindles.

One solution the study suggested was better recycling of e-waste. “If we want to secure the future supply of these specialty metals, we need to do a better job recycling them. This requires efforts at many different levels, from product design, to waste collection and separation, to recycling technology,” Reck said, emphasizing that while these metals are rare, they are also transferable from one generation of technology to the next. This leaves another question: are there other sustainable solutions to powering our electronics?

Vegemite—a food paste Australians love—might hold the key to sustainability. They could act as a conductive material for 3D printing, according to this article in 3DPrint. Professor Marc in het Panhuis of the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Electromaterials Science showed that vegemite can power up LED lights (which were also invented for sustainability). “The iconic Australian vegemite is ideal for 3D printing edible electronics,” said the professor. “It contains water so it’s not a solid and can easily be extruded using a 3D printer. Also, it’s salty, so it conducts electricity.”

Panhuis has also experimented with gelatin snack food Jell-O, blurring the lines between tech and food. Hydrogels, while fragile, also form cross-linked molecular chains which could make the devices more mechanically stable. Panhuis has added genipin (an anti-inflammatory agent from the fruit of the gardenia plant), gellan gum (a thickener in pastries, sauces, puddings, jellies and jams), and common salts. Then they soak the gellum gum hydrogel in sodium chloride (table salt) to create a strong gel.

Their main application at the moment is 3D printing, but Panhuis sees far more for his food/tech hybrids. He intends to develop edible biomedical sensors, which he admits is “a little way off.” Panhuis also intends to develop actuators that can sense and control the pressure applied by a prosthetic hand. In the longer run, he also intends to use the materials in 4D printing—where a device made by 3D printing can change its shape over time.

“What I’m suggesting is that we can eat our electronics and then they can perform a function and naturally go away,” Panhuis said about his goals to not only make electronics sustainable, but also give people a natural way of throwing them away as well.

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