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"Screen Saver" -- The Discovery Files

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Chemists have found a cheaper way to light up smartphone and TV screens -- using copper rather than iridium -- which could save manufacturers and consumers money without affecting visual quality. Iridium is one of the rarest elements on Earth, its origins possibly a millions-year-old asteroid; copper, on the other hand, is a plentiful metal worldwide. Therefore, substituting copper for iridium could help solve a major supply problem.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Shedding new light.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Most of us just expect sharp, vibrant colors on our smartphone screens or any OLED -- organic LED screen. But that brilliance is often brought to light by compounds containing the rarest metal on earth: Iridium. A widely-accepted theory holds that iridium arrived here within an asteroid or asteriods, including the big one (Sound effect: cartoon whistle incoming missile) that was "party's over" for the dinos about 65 million years ago. (Sound effect: massive explosion)

Short of another asteroid hit -- not a recommended solution -- the supply of this stuff is gonna continue to dwindle. Chemists at the University of Southern California are seeing the shortage in a whole new light. They've developed a way to replace ultra-rare iridium with very non-rare copper. Unlike past attempts at this, the USC team came up with a new copper compound with a rate of light emission that equals iridium's.

Actually, they've outshined iridium which typically has an issue with blue light. It's all good on colors like red and green, but OLEDs that emit blue have a short lifetime and need more electricity. Not so using the new copper compound.

A cheaper way to light up our screens: getting rid of the insufficient iridium and copping the copious copper.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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