Proclaimed the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) by the United Nations General Assembly and UNESCO, 2019 is shaping up to be an active and initiative-packed year for chemists worldwide. The celebrations coincide with the 150-year-old discovery of the Periodic system by Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev.
On 29 January 2019, UNESCO’s Paris offices welcomed participants for the official opening ceremony of the IYPT, where a fantastic line-up of speakers, including 2016 Nobel Laureate Ben Feringa, YouTube star Sir Martyn Poliakoff, and Yuri Oganessian, best known for discovering element 118, took to the stage to discuss the latest scientific developments and the meaning of the Periodic Table in our lives.
On display was a bubbly, odd-looking shaped Periodic Table.
This new Periodic Table, developed by EuChemS, the European Chemical Society, displays the very real threat of element scarcity. Only a week before the Paris celebrations, this distinctive periodic table was unveiled at an event held at the European Parliament in front of representatives from the scientific community, the European Commission, the European Parliament, as well as a class of high-school students.
Colour-coded, and with areas calculated on a logarithmic scale, this unique periodic table indicates which elements are under serious threat of becoming unavailable in the next 100 years, which are those whose increased use could lead to shortages, which are still abundant, which are mined from areas where there are conflicts, and finally, which can be found in our smartphones.
The message conveyed is not a reassuring one, and the visual depiction of element scarcity aims to be both a warning and a call to action. The new Periodic Table intends to prompt a conversation and reflection on how we can change the ways we use elements and whether we can develop ways of using abundant elements to fulfil the same functions.
Indeed, with 10 million smartphones thrown out every month in the European Union alone, a change in mindset, together with boosted recycling infrastructures and greater innovation are needed if we want to find sustainable solutions for the very near future. The issue of element abundance and our use of endangered elements in smartphones is also concomitant with ethical considerations. Some of the elements used in our smartphones originate from areas of conflict, whilst others like cobalt, are mined under appalling conditions and often by children in several countries.
An interesting case is that of Helium (He). This is the only element that can be lost altogether from Earth, whilst other elements are rather dispersed, produced in such small quantities that recycling them becomes either too difficult or too expensive, or become too complicated and costly to extract.
Helium is so light that when it gets into the atmosphere, it escapes earth’s gravity pull and is lost into space. Yet helium is a vital element with important uses in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and in the ‘breathing mix’ of diving cylinders. The use of helium in these cases is being increasingly recycled, but other uses are highly damaging. Using a lower grade helium (often a by-product of the helium used in MRI), birthday balloons use some 10% of all produced helium, with the end result that the element is eventually released and lost. Suppliers of helium used to include Qatar, which recently closed, whilst the United States has stated that its helium extraction will end in 2021. Fortunately, there was a significant find in Tanzania, which will come into stream in 2020. But with the same continued rate of use in balloons, all the helium from Tanzania would be lost within 80 years.
The International Year of the Periodic Table offers a wonderful opportunity to talk to the public about science, about chemistry, and about the well-recognised, but still often misunderstood Periodic Table.
It also offers an opportunity to discuss some of the issues that the Periodic Table can convey, such as element scarcity, and what we need to do, as scientists, policymakers or as citizens to ensure that the 90 natural elements that make up the world around us are still there tomorrow.
EuChemS, the European Chemical Society, coordinates the work of 48 Chemical Societies and other chemistry related organisations, representing more than 160,000 chemists. Through the promotion of chemistry and by providing expert and scientific advice, EuChemS aims to take part in solving today´s major societal challenges.