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[Image above] BBC documentary host Mark Miodownik holds a tungsten carbide ball. Credit: FARSHID BEHROOZIAN, YouTube

Is our society getting too big for the earth’s britches?

Yesterday, I reported on how the looming threat of sand scarcity is prompting researchers to advocate for worldwide sand governance policies.

And we’re well familiar with the challenges of supplying rare earths to meeting burgeoning global demand, driven by ever growing and developing technology.

There are even fears over lithium supply to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries, although that’s more of an issue of supply rather than finite global resources.

There are many other elements critical to today’s technology that are in danger of running out—and they’re the subject of a fascinating new BBC TV documentary called “Secrets of the Super Elements” hosted by Mark Miodownik.

Miodownik, a professor of materials and society at University College London, is no stranger to materials science communication—a couple of years ago, I reported on a new BBC show called “Everyday Miracles,” also hosted by Miodownik, that explored the material science of our everyday world.

The show, and Miodownik’s book Stuff Matters, did a great job of bringing materials science to the public, making relatable connections between everyday things and important materials concepts.

Now, the new BBC documentary—fittingly the first to be filmed entirely on smartphones—digs deeper to explore some of the super elements that enable our high-tech world of today. And many of those elements are dwindling in the wake of society’s intense hunger for more tech.

But the show takes a fun approach to explore these elements and highlight their worth in today’s society.

For instance, Miodownik mines an iPhone in the documentary to explore what’s inside to make it tick, beep, ring, notify, and all the other things our smartphones do today. Of course, we already know what’s inside—$1.03 of raw elemental value and some serious social consequences.

Another part of the documentary focuses on tungsten, a really incredible element. By itself, tungsten is twice as dense as steel, really hard, and has the highest melting point of all known elements—a whopping 3,422ºC.

And when you combine tungsten with carbide to make a ceramic, things get even more real—as in really indestructible. Watch a short portion of the “Super Elements” documentary below to see how well a tungsten carbide ball can stand up to an industrial roller.


So, I think there’s only one remaining question—can a hydraulic press do the trick?

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