Replacing scarce metals with graphene and other carbon nanomaterials

September 21, 2017 //By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Scarce metals are complicated to extract, difficult to recycle and so rare that several of them have become "conflict minerals" but are needed in high tech electronics such as computers, mobile phones, and in almost all other electronic equipment as well as in many plastics. A survey at Chalmers University of Technology now shows that there are potential technology-based solutions that can replace many of the metals with carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene.

Scarce metals such as tin, silver, tungsten and indium are both rare and difficult to extract since the workable concentrations are very small. This ensures the metals are highly sought after – and their extraction is a breeding ground for conflicts, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they fund armed conflicts. Further, they are difficult to recycle profitably since they are often present in small quantities in various components such as electronics.

Rickard Arvidsson and Björn Sandén, researchers in environmental systems analysis at Chalmers University of Technology, have an alternative that substitutes carbon nanomaterials for the scarce metals. These substances, the best known of which is graphene,  are strong materials with good conductivity, like scarce metals.

"Now technology development has allowed us to make greater use of the common element carbon," says Sandén. "Today there are many new carbon nanomaterials with similar properties to metals. It's a welcome new track, and it's important to invest in both the recycling and substitution of scarce metals from now on."

The Chalmers researchers have studied the main applications of 14 different metals, and by reviewing patents and scientific literature have investigated the potential for replacing them by carbon nanomaterials. The results provide a unique overview of research and technology development in the field.


Scarce metals are found in a wide range of everyday objects around us. A survey at Chalmers University of Technology now shows that there are potential technology-based solutions that can replace many of the metals with carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene. Image courtesy of Jonas Sandwall