We’re running out of rare-Earth metals for electronics. Here’s a solution

Electronic devices are made possible thanks to a group of elements often referred to as rare-Earth metals, but as the name suggests, these may be in limited supply and are relatively expensive. Now, a team of scientists has found a way to combine much more common elements into electronically-useful compounds, which could find their way into tunable lighting and solar panels.

It takes all sorts of precious minerals such as lithium and cobalt to build electronic devices as smart as the ones we use every day. Unfortunately, many of these elements are quite hard to find and mine, making them expensive and prone to become even scarcer in the not-too-distant future. That’s why companies like Honda and Samsung are beginning to develop ways to recycle these elements, while scientists are also trying to find new ways to recover valuable components and tackle the ever-growing e-waste problem.

As useful as those initiatives are, it would be easier to just use cheaper alternatives made from more common elements. Such is the goal of a new study where researchers are combining elements from neighboring groups within the periodic table to create compounds with many of the useful properties of the rare-Earth metals. This can be done using a molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), which layers elements on top of each other with atomic precision.

Through this technique, the researchers managed to create a compound that has many of the same optoelectronic properties as other rare metals. In fact, this new compound is able to harvest solar energy and give off light, meaning it could be put to work as an affordable alternative in thin-film solar panels, LED lights, and displays. Considering just how dependent smart electronics are on rare-Earth metals, this new method of creating compounds could solve a massive issue.

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