A touch of indium

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The presence of some elements in our daily lives often gets overlooked, and this is certainly the case in a striking manner for indium. We all know a copper coin when we see one, but I wonder how many people know an indium device when they use its fancy touchscreen function.

Catherine Renouf, a PhD student in materials chemistry at the University of St Andrews, does — and chose to spread the word by writing about indium for our essay competition last year. Her essay, which appears in this month’s ‘in your element’ article (free to registered users), explains indium’s sudden rise in popularity.


Indium was unveiled to the world in 1867 — a public presentation that involved a bit of an artifice; find out in the article how discoverers Ferdinand Reich (pictured) and Hieronymous Richter ensured their ingot of rare indium wouldn’t inadvertently go missing.

Element 49 pretty much remained a curiosity in chemistry labs for the following 50 years, and it was its involvement in indium tin oxide (ITO) that suddenly rendered it very attractive. A material that is both electrically conductive and transparent makes for a great device coating, as simply touching the ITO layer sends a signal to the device. It is brittle, however, and we’ll need an alternative material to progress towards flexible and rollable displays.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing, as indium resources are fast being depleted. Chemists, to your benches!


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Anne Pichon

Senior Editor, Nature Chemistry, Springer Nature

Anne received a broad training in chemistry at the National Graduate School of Chemistry in Montpellier, France. She then focused on inorganic and supramolecular chemistry and obtained her MPhil and PhD degrees from the Queen's University Belfast, UK, investigating porous coordination polymers for host–guest applications. After an internship with Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Anne moved to John Wiley and Sons in 2007 as an assistant editor of the Society of Chemical Industry journals. She joined Nature Chemistry in October 2008, and was initially based in Tokyo where she also worked on other publishing projects with Nature Asia-Pacific. In April 2013, Anne relocated to the London office and now works full time on the journal.