Data centers and critical raw materials

Data center equipment and in general digital technologies contain a wide and increasing range of materials that enable the peculiar electronic, magnetic, optical, or mechanical properties of chips and other components. Some of these elements are classified as critical raw materials (CRMs). This is due to their importance in several growing industries (e.g. ICT, renewables, e-mobility) and their level of supply risk. This latter is related to the scarcity of these minerals (for example, rare-earth elements are not often found in concentrated enough clusters to make them viable to mine) and to the country-level concentration of their global production (China is the biggest supplier, which provides 41% of primary raw materials sourced to the EU).
Furthermore, these elements often require particularly high energy consumption to be processed and used to fabricate devices, with further impact on the environment.
This is why it is essential to evaluate material content in devices and to implement actions to reduce the consumption of these raw elements.

Considering the data center industry, useful data on the use of critical materials have been provided by the Research Team of the Tempro project. The researchers identified servers, and especially their electronic boards, as the most critical components, considering the mass content of critical and precious materials. In particular, laboratory analysis allowed them to identify the metal contents of different types of server electronic boards. For example, RAM and CPUs, drive boards, and motherboards resulted containing the highest amounts of gold (855 g/ton of boards), silver (1802 g/ton), and palladium (36 g/ton) respectively. Drive boards also contain the biggest quantities of rare-earth elements (REEs, such as dysprosium, neodymium, and yttrium), while other critical materials, such as gallium, indium, and tungsten, are contained in different percentages in different types of electronic boards.

The demand for these raw materials is expected to rapidly increase in the next decades, due to the growth of the ICT industry and other strategic sectors such as renewable energy and e-mobility. This highlights the necessity of conducting more research in this field and setting up measures to reduce supply risk and competition for resources. Re-use and recycling, initiatives against planned obsolescence of devices, as well as research on advanced materials, substitution, and miniaturization of components will probably be of paramount importance for future supply–demand balances on raw materials.

To know more about the use of critical materials in data centers, see the report and have a look at the website of the Tempro project.

Main raw materials adopted for digital technologies and their functionality.
Source: Critical Raw Materials for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU – A Foresight Study – European Commission, 2020 (elaboration on information from Additive Manufacturing – BCG, 2018)