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)