Redesigned periodic table reveals elements now on the ‘endangered list’

22 Jan 2019

Image: © Evgeniy Kalinovskiy/

A new periodic table design attempts to showcase how many of the elements needed for mobile phones are being driven to ‘extinction’.

Taking on board the idea that a picture tells a thousand words, scientists from the University of St Andrews in the UK and the European Chemical Society have created a very strange-looking periodic table. Marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first periodic table by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, this new table attempts to put visual values on the amount of elements believed to exist in the world.

Unlike the even, square periodic table of old, the skewed, multicoloured table of 2019 shows many of the elements used to make mobile phones as being included on an ‘endangered list’. Some of these could be entirely used up within the next 100 years.

Among the elements highlighted as being increasingly rare include yttrium (Y) and indium (In), used in smartphone screens and camera lenses; as well as gallium (Ga), used in mobile phones’ low-noise microwave preamplifiers.

New, irregular periodic table showing common elements in green and rare elements coloured orange and yellow.

Click on the image for a larger version. Image: University of St Andrews/European Chemical Society

Should we change phone every two years?

Modern smartphones are made up of around 30 different elements, many of which are rare, resulting in the growth of conflict minerals in developing nations as well as dumping in landfill.

Figures from the 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor report showed that in 2016, it was estimated that e-waste contained rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, and other high-value, recoverable materials, with a total value estimated at $55bn.

Within the EU alone, it is estimated that as many as 10m smartphones are discarded or replaced each month.

“It is astonishing that everything in the world is made from just 90 building blocks, the 90 naturally occurring chemical elements,” said the European Chemical Society’s vice-president, Prof David Cole-Hamilton.

“There is a finite amount of each and we are using some so fast that they will be dissipated around the world in less than 100 years. Many of these elements are endangered, so should you really change your phone every two years?”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic