Rare Mineral Pushes Tech to Find New Touchscreen Materials

So get this: there's a ceramic developed from a rare mineral that makes our smartphones and tablets touch-sensitive. The mineral used to make that substance is rare, and known sources could run out in the next ten years. According to GigaOM, the search for a replacement involves new nanomaterials developments.

The mineral is indium, and the substance made from indium is called indium tin oxide. It's used in the coating on glass that makes a touchscreen touch sensitive. That's obviously a vital part of mobile, and it will become an increasingly important part of the laptop market in the future, according to industry experts I think are overly-enthusiastic in their predictions*.


Indium Ingots
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Commenting in the article at GigaOM, Rick Short of The Indium Company denied that indium was running out. According to him, there is far more indium in the Earth's crust than silver (more about that later), and more of it is being recycled all the time.

Mining and processing it are the issues, hence the reference to known sources in the opening paragraph, and the fact is that its rarity is driving the technology world to look for other solutions. One of those solutions is silver nanowire.

Rahul Gupta, senior director of business development at Cambrios Technologies, demonstrated that a mesh made with silver nanowire, offers a "sweet spot" for conductivity and transparency that could make it an ideal alternative technology. Silver nanowire also has the benefit of being bendy, as Phoebe Buffay might say**, which has obvious benefits as we move into the brave new world of wearable computing.

Silver nanowires—like all nano technology, is still in the R&D phase, and Rick Short of The Indium Company also noted that R&D continues with developing, processing, and handling indium-related materials, including ways to make it bendy.

There is a lot of money at stake, and as touchscreens become more important, ways to make things touchable will get more and more money poured into them.

Related: It's a pretty good time to be alive.

There's more on this topic in the GigaOM article.

*Laptops with touchscreens use more of this material than a smartphone or tablet, so any growth will have an impact on Indium usage, but I think touchscreen laptops will remain a tiny niche. This, despite the gleam in Microsoft's and its OEM's eyes.

**With apologies. I just watched "The One Where Everyone Finds Out" again.