Almost everyone knows that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, but hardly anyone knows that a smartphone contains at least 30 chemical elements, some of which are becoming increasingly scarce. The International Year of the Periodic Table aims to familiarise us with chemistry and raise awareness of the importance of preserving the elements and the planet
Aluminium, silver, gold, sodium, iodine, sulphur, chlorine, are names of elements we have all heard of. Ruthenium, neodymium or lanthanum, on the other hand, are words foreign to the vocabulary of people who have not studied chemistry.
Almost everyone knows that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, H2O is perhaps the most familiar chemical formula to people who are not necessarily in the sciences. However, few know that a smartphone contains some 30 chemical elements, some of which are becoming increasingly rare.
In an effort to bring us closer to chemistry and raise awareness of the importance of protecting natural resources for sustainable development, the UN General Assembly declared 2019 as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, marking the 150th anniversary of the classification by Russian scientist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev.
We know that we need oxygen to breathe and that oxygen is abundant and continuously produced in nature, but what do we know about indium, for example? Probably nothing, despite the fact that in today’s world we are surrounded by screens containing it. In combination with other materials, indium forms a conductive film without which the screens could not be touched.
If we were also aware that indium could be used up in 20 years, we would probably not change our mobile phones and other devices so often. The scientific community estimates that one million phones are changed every month in the UK alone.
To disseminate this kind of information, the scientific community supports UNESCO with educational materials and activities around the world.
For example, the European Chemical Society, which brings together more than 160,000 scientists, has designed a new presentation of the periodic table that uses colours and shapes to illustrate the availability of elements and warns about those that are at risk of depletion or that could come from areas where they are illegally mined, as in the case of gold.
In addition, the table tells us which elements are present in mobile phones, explains Professor Pilar Goya Laza, an academic at the Spanish National Research Council and president of the European Chemical Society, one of the institutions promoting the International Year of the Periodic Table.
We must take care of the periodic table just as we must take care of the planet.
“We have made a periodic table that also has a certain message of sustainability. It is a slightly different table in which we draw attention to the fact that there are not the same amount of all the elements, because normally when we look at it it is like a grid and there is the same amount of all the elements, but it is not like that. There are elements that are much more abundant than others. In the table that we have made, our message is: beware of misusing the scarcer elements. There is a message that we have to take care of the periodic table just as we have to take care of the planet,” he says.
“With that table and these messages we want to draw attention to it. In fact, we have included a mobile phone in those elements present in a smartphone. Some say there are 31, some say there are more. We do this so that young people are aware that a mobile phone if it is changed too often, is overusing some elements. And we can’t keep wasting elements, not recycling them.” Scientific research at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s laboratories in Vienna. Photo: IAEA/Dean CalmaScientific research at the International Atomic Energy Agency laboratories in Vienna. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calma
The bricks of the universe
In 1869 Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev presented the first version of the table with the 60 elements known at the time. Today that periodic table includes 118 chemical elements, 90 of which make up everything in the universe.
“These elements are like the building blocks for everything in the universe. Everything in the universe is made up of these 90 elements combined in different ways,” says Professor Goya Laza.
Everything in the universe is made up of 90 elements.
“The periodic table is very important because the elements are not ordered randomly but in a systematic way, so that they give us a lot of information about each element, in other words, by the place it occupies in the periodic table we can get a lot of information about its behaviour.
But if 90 elements make up everything that exists in the universe, where are the other 28 that are also on the periodic table? These are synthetic elements that are not found in nature but are created in the laboratory. To what end?
“In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, synthetic elements are useful for energy projects, radiodiagnostic contrast tests and other fields of science,” says Professor Goya Laza.
We are a chemical laboratory
The International Year of the Periodic Table seeks to remind us that the chemical elements are present in everything we see and feel.
“Humans are a chemical laboratory in which we continuously synthesise some proteins and degrade others,” she said.
Understanding this allows us to understand that chemistry can give us solutions to many of humanity’s problems such as hunger, health and the environment.
“It is true that chemistry has a double face: on the one hand, it pollutes, but on the other hand it is capable of decontaminating,” says Goya Laza, acknowledging the bad press that chemistry can get.
To counteract the negative perception of chemistry and put it at the service of the well-being of humanity, the scientific community has united around UNESCO this year to support it with educational activities and materials, including a video game.