Why Materials: Solutions for Scarcity?

High tech equipment

LCD screens, tablet computers, smartphones with batteries that last for ten hours, smart plastic packaging, lightweight plastic components for all sorts of equipment, thin solar panels… technological progress has enriched us with a wide variety of high-tech devices to make our lives easier. However, these devices often contain raw materials whose supply is not inexhaustible. Besides the imminent shortage of oil, there is also an imminent shortage of terbium, lanthanum and neodymium for example. These are 'rare earth' metals that are used in iPhones, flat screen televisions and hybrid vehicles. At present, over 95 per cent of all rare earth metals come from China, which is an economically unfavorable situation. China has imposed export restrictions before, paralyzing the production of high-tech equipment in the West. In addition, the extraction of these materials is very damaging to the environment.


Catalyst production often uses expensive metals as well. Catalysts are substances that accelerate chemical reactions and minimize the waste that reactions produce. New catalysts are needed for the development of new processes such as the conversion of biomass, or to make vehicles cleaner. Science is looking for ways to make catalysts without the need to use rare earth metals any more.

Food supply

Another area to which the NWO theme Materials is relevant is that of food supply. Without artificial fertilizers, we cannot feed the world’s growing population. Fertilizers contain elements such as phosphorus and potassium. Supplies of these substances are not limitless either, but there are no alternatives. Consequently, scientists are seeking solutions to fine-tune the use of these substances in agriculture and horticulture and, where possible, to recover them.

There are three central aims within the theme:

  • Reducing the use of scarce materials
    Scientists are seeking ways of producing as efficiently as possible, i.e. with minimal losses during production, and with maximum yield or benefits from the material during use.
  • Finding substitute materials
    Chemists, physicists and materials scientists are trying to find combinations of elements that have certain desired properties, such as emitting light under the influence of electricity (optoelectronics). In the lab, new substances are being synthesised and new combinations of materials are being made, atomic layer by atomic layer.
  • Recycling used rare materials
    The challenge for designers is increasingly 'design for next use'. This means, as early as the product design stage, considering how to recover the rare elements from a product easily once it has reached the end of its useful life.

Relationship with theme High Tech Systems and Materials

The NWO theme High Tech Systems and Materials concentrates on the application of smart materials in components and high-tech systems. The theme Materials: Solutions for Scarcity focuses specifically on the design and production of materials and the sustainable management of the resources needed for that purpose.