Some of the elements have less than 100 years to go if we carry on using them at the rate that we do.
One example of an element in danger is helium. It’s used in magnetic resonance imaging and in deep sea diving, and in both of these applications the helium is recycled. But if you have a helium balloon at a birthday party, it will either deflate or burst, and either way the helium is released into the atmosphere. Helium is so light that once it’s in the atmosphere it can actually escape from the earth completely and go into outer space where it’s lost to us forever.
The second scarce element I’d like to mention is indium. Indium tin oxide is the main conducting oxide that we have, which means that indium is used in every screen that you look at. At the rate we’re using it our reserves will only last around 50 years. This means we either need to get better at recycling indium from screens, or we need to do a lot more research to identify compounds based on earth-abundant elements – those coloured green on the periodic table – that can do the same job.
We’re launching our version of the table at the European Parliament in January 2019, but we’ve already made great progress in getting it into schools across Europe. In the Netherlands the table has been handed out to 200 teachers, and in Italy they are sending a copy to every school. The Royal Society of Chemistry is going to send a copy to every one of its 50,000 members.
We’ve tried hard to make our periodic table accessible to everyone – for example we’ve made sure the colours can be identified by colour blind people, and the symbols are in a font that’s easier to read for people with dyslexia.
It’s amazing to think that everything that we see around us in the natural world is made up from just 90 building blocks – the 90 naturally occurring elements. Furthermore, these 90 elements, in different combinations, make up all of the wonders of nature, and all the technology and gadgets we use every day. We need to have a better way of dealing with these resources, or we won’t have them anymore.