Megatrends are massive social, environmental and technological changes that present both challenges and opportunities. For example, electric vehicles are a megatrend in transportation. Currently, many global megatrends are in motion that will dramatically reshape the way we live over the coming decades, including: urbanisation, automation, clean energy, the Internet of things, and aging population. All of these megatrends will also have a dramatic effect on the global supply of rare earths and Zirconium (Zr), Hafnium (Hf) and Niobium (Nb). Here, I’m going to focus on the impact of our aging population. First, however, you may be wondering…
Why should I care about the global supply of rare earths and Zr, Hf, Nb?
We rely on rare earths every day. Rare earths are 17 elements collectively labelled the ‘vitamins of industry’ because they play a small but vital role in a wide range of modern technologies. They’re in every smartphone, tablet and computer, for example, along with Zr, Hf and Nb.
These elements also play a major role in the manufacture of permanent magnets, which have multiple applications in advanced technology for transport, information and communications, defence and medicine. We use permanent magnets in motors, generators, actuators, alternators, bearings, brakes, separators and holding devices, torque drives, magnetos, meters, loudspeakers, relays… you get the picture!
Elements essential to high technology are to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: global economic and political stability depends on a steady, sufficient supply.
What does our aging population have to do it?
Let’s start with some startling figures… In 2015, 8.5% of humans were aged 65+. By 2050, 16.7% will be in that age bracket, due to declining fertility and increasing longevity. China is predicted to have 330 million citizens aged 65+ by 2050, compared to 110 million today. India’s current older population of 60 million is projected to exceed 227 million in 2050. A century ago, there were fewer than 14 million people this age on the entire planet! Exponentially growing numbers of elders will place enormous strain on health care and pension systems, with massive consequences for wellbeing and economies.
Simultaneously, the global trend to have fewer children means there will be less potential support for older people from their families in the future. In some European countries, more than 40% of women aged 65+ live alone. Even in societies with strong traditions of elder care, such as in Japan, traditional shared living arrangements are becoming less common. To reduce the old-age-dependency ratio (old-age dependents: working-age population) which is 30% and rising in some European countries, governments are increasing retirement ages and seeking means of extending careers and promoting independent living.
Many of the potential solutions to these burgeoning problems involve high technology.
A robot buddy for Grandma
If family members can’t look after their elders, perhaps automated care is the answer. Smartphones, tablets and computers can be filled with software and apps designed to support seniors in independent living – reminding them when to take medications, for example. Smart watches and other sensor systems can monitor health and behaviour in real time and alert remote caregivers in an emergency. Smart pendants can register when the wearer falls and contact aid providers.
Amazon has launched Alexa and many new companies are developing other voice-activated companion technologies for assisted living, to keep elders active and connected to their communities, like ElliQ, Jibo or Kuri. Some are promoting robotic pets. Mobile robots, including drones, can fetch or carry objects and complete household chores. The i-Support project is developing an integrated, intelligent, automated bathroom system to help seniors wash and toilet themselves safely.
Elders are adopting automated assistance faster than younger people might expect. Retirement villages and other care facilities are eager to test these technologies. There seems little doubt that it will soon be standard practice for seniors and their human carers to be assisted by smart devices and robots… and all these technologies require rare earths and Zr, Hf, Nb.
Timely treatment for Grandpa
Whereas in the past, infectious diseases affecting the young were the primary global health concern and cost, in this century, non-communicable diseases that affect older people – such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes – will impose a far greater burden. Alzheimer’s Disease International projects that 115 million people worldwide will be living with AD/dementia in 2050. To combat these old-age diseases, early detection and intervention are essential.
Rare earths have health and medical applications ranging from diagnosis to drug treatments and surgical equipment. They are used in imaging techniques such as CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Positron Emission Tomography and X-rays. An average MRI machine contains 700 kg of rare earths. Drugs based on rare earths are providing treatments for lung, prostate, breast and bone cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Rare earths are also used in modern surgical technology, such as cochlear implants and robot-assisted surgery. Clearly, in the field of medicine alone, the aging megatrend will increase demand for elements essential to high tech, far faster than Grandpa can ride his mobility scooter to the pharmacy.
Prolonged youth for boomers
Aging baby boomers will do everything possible to feel and look young, spending their considerable retirement funds freely on high technology for enhanced bodies and assisted living. This technology ranges from electric bicycles (to keep pace with younger push-bikers) to robotic limbs (for easier walking and greater strength) and smart glass in vehicles (to help older eyes adjust to light changes). To keep the bloom on the boomers, an increasing supply of high tech materials will be needed.
Where will we find enough rare earths to meet accelerating demand from the aged?
The cost of rare earths and Zr, Hf, Nb in these technologies is a very small fraction of the total materials cost, but their presence is essential, so uninterrupted supply is critical. I have explored the threat to global security presented by China’s current near monopoly of high tech materials supply in a previous post. Right now, Australia has an excellent, long-term opportunity to secure our supply of rare earths and other essential elements through Alkane Resources’ Dubbo Project. The wisest investors – old or young – will move their money into high tech materials ahead of the aging megatrend.