Apple has sent out the invitations for a September 9th media event that is widely anticipated to be the debut of the iPhone 6. They’re either geniuses at viral marketing, or completely hopeless at keeping secrets… but either way, we already know quite a lot about what they’re planning. Pictures of alleged components and assemblies have been circulating for months.
No doubt the business that Forrest Gump once called “some kind of fruit company” has been busy, and no doubt the latest pieces of pocket-candy will achieve sales in the tens of millions, within days. The iPhone is Apple’s biggest moneymaker, and I have written before about the difficulties that they face in this once-a-year chance to shine… but CEO Tim Cook is equal to the task if anybody is. He’s a supply chain guy. He’s no Steve Jobs (he doesn’t say “boom!” nearly enough during his keynotes for one thing) but the less glamorous task of managing the whole network is what’s needed, if all those iPhones and iWatches are to reach the faithful in a timely manner.
When the initial surge of September madness has died down a little, I hope that the supply chain guy will be able to think long-term, because there may be trouble ahead… in the shape of a post-transition metallic element with the atomic number 49.
If that was sufficient to identify it to you then congratulations: you’re a chemistry nerd.
The material in question is indium, and in particular I’m interested in indium tin oxide (ITO), which has the highly desirable properties of being transparent in thin layers, highly conductive and impervious to water. These have made it a feature of all kinds of modern gadgets including liquid crystal or plasma displays, some solar panels, strain gauges and the heated cockpit windows of airliners.
Sputter a thin film of ITO onto a transparent substrate such as glass, plastic or sapphire, and you’ve got the makings of a touch-sensitive screen; the interface for all the various smartphones – some of which were out before the iPhone, but none achieving similar market penetration. Since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, displays have been getting bigger, and ‘touchier’. Flat-screen monitors and televisions have also grown, and it’s become the norm to own a tablet as well as a regular computer and a mobile phone. All this adds up to an insatiable demand for ITO.
The US Geological Survey puts global indium reserves at about 16,000 tonnes: a sobering thought when you consider that the equivalent figure for economically accessible gold is put at 52,000 tonnes – despite the fact that we’ve been digging the stuff up since the late stone age. Indium was only discovered in 1863, and it looks like it’ll all be mined out within twenty years. Less, if demand continues to grow.
It’s not Apple’s fault. Their designers are simply specifying the most appropriate material now available. Nothing else works quite so well, so this is what their screen manufacturers use… but some are predicting that supplies of indium will run out, and soon.
Given that the amount of ITO used per iPhone or iPad is tiny, a price increase isn’t a particularly strong disincentive. Within the era of the iPhone, Indium has fluctuated between $60/kg to over $900/kg… yet the increase didn’t stop Apple, LG, Sony, Samsung or anybody else using it.
Economists say that any commodity will find its own level: as prices increase, substitutes become more cost-effective, and old mines (you typically find indium in the tailings of a zinc mine) can be reopened. Recycling also becomes more attractive.
Well, maybe. Recycling isn’t really working for mobile devices, though. They don’t take up much space in the home, and there’s always the worry that sensitive personal data might be recovered from one… so we tend not to give them away. Also, they’re expensive: when you remember paying maybe $600 for a gadget just two years before, it’s hard to accept a $50 trade-in for it. Instead, we tend to put our old phone in a drawer (“as a spare”), or give it to the kids. We put our smaller, older television in the guest room, and so on. Hoarding these items is an impulse that’s hard to resist.
Even if you did give up an old phone and it went for recycling, it’s a fiddling small gadget with some nasty toxic chemicals in it. It’s a difficult job to sift through all that, just to extract a thin smear of ITO, a fortieth of a gram of gold and so on. Basically, recycling isn’t going to give us enough ITO for each successive generation of bigger, better mobiles.
If you can’t use ITO… what are you left with? There’s silver nanowires (which are a bit fiddly, at a 10,000th the thickness of a human hair… but the technology seems to be coming along nicely). There are high hopes for graphene and its relative, carbon nanotubes… someday. Graphene still has a long way to go, to reach the mature, commercial-scale technology that Apple would be looking for. There are substitutes such as aluminum-doped Zinc Oxide and gallium-doped Zinc Oxide… but they’re poor substitutes. There doesn’t appear to be anything that makes touch screens as reliable and responsive as ITO, that’s ready for immediate, widespread use.
The logical solution is to stay with ITO, for now… but that won’t always be an option.
I’m hoping that the new toys Apple reveals next year won’t simply be faster, or fractionally thinner. If a company with cash reserves of something like $150 billion can’t find a way to break the deadlock and acquire a viable alternative to ITO, then things are grim indeed. Look after your next smartphone; it may be a long while before a better one comes along.