I want to have a post apocalyptic world where 21st century tech is unable to be made anymore due to humans using up all the resources on the planet. Since space programs also use computers, there should be no way to get to space either. The problem is that I do not know if it is feasible for the human race to run out of enough raw elements to make consumer electronics. It is acceptable to have some of that tech to still exist, I just want to know if it is feasible or realistic for humans to run out of stuff like copper, gold, etc. I would preferably like the world to be set in 2080, if so possible. I am willing to go up to 2110 if not. There are no sci-fi elements, like aliens and such, except for the wasteland that is earth.
What does it mean to have depleted resources?
With the exceptions of atmosphere that has sublimated into space and mass converted to energy by nuclear power and bomb testing (and maybe a few other things, but you get my point), every atom of material that started on the planet is still here. Through chemistry, we've manipulated those atoms, but they're all still here. The idea that a point in time could come where a critical material needed for manufacturing electronics was gone is hard to believe. One would only need to start digging up old trash dumps to get access to those materials and fire up chemistry to recycle them.
So, what's missing in a post-apocalyptic world that would prohibit high-tech manufacturing?
The supply chain. Most people don't realize just how large and complex the high-tech supply chain is. It's massive. And one of the reasons it's massive is that an honest analysis of the supply chain can't ignore dependent chains. All those raw materials that go into an integrated chip. That go into the machines that make integrated chips. That go into the tools that maintain the machines. That go into the machines that make the clothes of the people who perform the maintenance. That go into gathering, processing, and shipping food that feeds all those maintenance workers. And that was just an infintesimal sliver of the supply chain. That supply chain simply won't exist post-apocalypse.
Some chemicals are very hard to handle. During a safety class at my first post-university job, one of the fabrication scientists was reviewing how to manually detect dangerous chemical situations (never trust the automation!). One of those chemicals was hydrogen cyanide, which at that time was used during the integrated circuit manufacturing process. He explained that it smells like almonds — o'course, you're probably dead at that point, so the idea was primarily academic. My point? Post-apocalypse you might not have the ability to handle the dangerous chemicals needed for or produced by high-tech manufacture.
As @L.Dutch mentioned (I upvoted his answer, you should too) post-apocalypse you might not even have the ability to build and/or maintain the machines needed for high-tech manufacturing. Remember that supply chain I mentioned? There is a similar "knowledge chain" that's required for those machines to work for any length of time. Scientists, engineers, and technicians from the machine manufacturer down to the machine user and you need all of them. Take too many of them out of the "knowledge chain" and you get the same kind of collapse you see when you disrupt the supply chain.
And speaking of chains... there's also the need for electricity (a LOT of it), water (a LOT of it), waste processing (a LOT of it)... But if we ignore everything and only focus on electricity, high-tech manufacturing facilities use their own substations. Their power requirements are enormous. You're post-apocalypse, so let's simply consider running train after train of coal to the local power plant to keep the power going. I live next to train tracks that run eight coal trains, each 2 miles (3.2 km) long, seven days a week. I'm told they supply one power plant in Washington. (And the supply chain... miners, train workers, dock workers... repair/replace trucks, diggers, train cars & engines, track...).
And then there's Mad Max...
You just can't have a post-apocalyptic world without the kind of drama we saw in the Mad Max movies. Oh, it's not the Hollywood flash-bang I'm talking about. It's the sense of lawlessness and chaos. High Tech depends on stable civilizations and stable governments. Why?
As an example, it's a whomping big deal when a fabrication facility shuts down. A small facility can lose a million dollars a day. A big one can loose a million dollars an hour. Planned shutdowns for maintenance are one thing, but the power suddenly shutting off is very much another! The one time I remember it happening, the company literally just sent everyone home. All of us, right down to the janitors. Every possible penny of expense was salvaged while the building support staff worked around the clock to get the power back online. Yup, these facilities have backups after backups after backups — but nothing is ever perfect. If it's that sensitive in the Real World, imagine the problem of keeping one running with twenty cars circiling the facility shooting bullets into it.
While I don't believe you can rationalize the inability to manufacture high-tech due to a lack of resources, I think your real problem would be rationalizing the ability to manufacture high-tech at all. There's so much civilization that high-tech depends on — and post-apocalypse, some or more of that civilization is usually gone.
@AlexP makes a good point: as the size and stability of post-apocalyptic government increases, so does the ability to manufacture high-tech components. Given the inevitable amount of equipment left over after even a classic apocalyptic event, the odds are very good that 1960-1970 grade electronics could be manufactured almost immediately, 1980-1990 grade electronics within a few decades, and 2000-2010 electronics a decade after that. Humans are nothing if not tenacious — and we've decidedly proven that we love our cool gadgets.
Making state of the art electronic is not only a problem of materials, but also of technology. While any amateur can expose board with a resolution of several microns, going to the nanometer scale requires complex machines.
Although several years delayed than its initial plan, extreme UV lithography (EUVL) with 13.5nm wavelength has been finally implemented into high volume manufacture (HVM) of mainstream semiconductor industry since 2018. With the delivery and installation of ASML EUV scanners in those giant Fab players like Samsung, TSMC and Intel, EUV lithography is becoming a sort of industry standard exposure metrology for those critical layers of advanced technology nodes beyond 7nm. Although ASML NXE EUVL scanner is the only commercialized EUV exposure system available on the market, its development is the concentration of all essence from worldwide industrial and academic collaboration. It is becoming more and more important not only for fab runners but also for main stream fabless design houses to understand and participate the progress of EUVL.
And to make those machine one needs also the electronics made with those same machines, or those from the generation before. To put it simply, you can have all the silicon wafers, gold, copper, indium etc. of the world, but if you don't have a litho fab you won't get any decent (for today standards) electronic.
And that is way more easy to achieve in a post apocalyptic scenario. Vacuum tubes might be done, but will never achieve the performances of today electronic.
This is not feasible.
Most of the chip is silicon coming from just about anything, Earth is full of that and it is not too difficult to purify to something reasonably good. Dopants are common. The remaining materials such as rare earths are available mostly everywhere too. Yes, there are some countries dominating the supply. But this is because they have most suitable deposits, laws, tools and know-how to make extraction and purification profitable on a large scale. I daresay 90%+ of countries could get all required materials for chip manufacture on their soil, it just wouldn't be environmentally friendly or cost effective, so they don't. But blow up / infect / ... the rest of the world and Madagascar as the obvious safe spot becomes the world powerhouse in chip manufacture.
So, you need to break down everything. JBH's answer talks about supply chains and this is a good starting point. The main problem with it is that an ancient process doesn't require all that much fancy stuff, especially as we have worked out most of kinks. You can prevent 2020 tech. Perhaps make 2000 tech need many years to get back to. But 1970s tech can be set up fairly fast after complete collapse.
Next step would be that people forgot how to make chips. You can't really do that, unless the apocalypse wipes out adults and leaves just children alive. They would remember what glorious toys they had, but have no idea how to make them.
Yet another way of stopping chip manufacture is if your chips were responsible for the apocalypse so nobody wants to make them - but this is a fairly common trope these days.
Have difficulty yes, unable no
For the working scenario I take a process of recovery from post-apocalyptic state when commercial stability has been restored, and there are resources to resume production of the more and more technologically complex products, but lack (or expensiveness) of raw resources creates obstacles on this path.
Some of the resources that our civilization is using are considered non-renewable, such as oil and gas. Ores, on the other hand, while non-renewable, can be recycled. There are not so much easily accessible gold deposits anymore, but most of what people have mined so far is recoverable. The only question is the price of it.
So, under this working scenario it is possible that recovering civilization can be starved off certain materials that are presently necessary in electronics. Gold is one such example, rare earth elements is another.
However, semiconductors in general should not be affected. Silicon, as well as most doping elements are broadly available and in not in any realistic risk of depletion.
With realistic depletion, the cost of new gadgets may make them too expensive for the consumer segment, but as mentioned above, the elements themselves are still available here on Earth, research and development would still be possible, albeit at a higher cost.
One notable exception to this is Helium. While almost all other elements stay put on Earth, Helium, once extracted from the Earth cavity, eventually escapes to space. So this new civilization may have to cope with shortage of helium, which would put restraints on its superconductor research and fields related to it.
Materials required to fabricate many types of electronics compose roughly 50% of the Earth's crust. It would be virtually impossible to get rid of them all.
- 27.7% silicon
- 8.1% aluminum
- 5.0% Iron
- 3.6$ Calcium
- 2.8% Sodium
- 2.6% potassium
Silicon's primary use in electronics is to make semiconductors (transistors, diodes, microchips, etc.).
Aluminum itself is actually a really good conductor. It can be drawn into wires and used to make coils for transformers, electric motors/generators, power transmission lines, etc.
Iron, while a much worse conductor than aluminum, is still a viable choice in many cases. And can be used to make stuff like electromagnets and inductors.
Calcium Sodium, and Potassium all have their uses making batteries.
It's probably more likely that knowledge, practical expertise, and infrastructure required to make advanced electronics would disappear rather than the actual materials necessary to do it.
If engineering and production facilities of tech-corporations are destroyed, universities are destroyed, libraries are destroyed, and the internet goes off-line that knowledge would exist mostly in the minds of knowledgeable professionals and whatever private reference books they own.
If those professionals don't pass on their knowledge to the next generation, it's possible that knowledge could become virtually lost within a generation or two. This could happen either because schools are not operational, professionals are specifically targeted for elimination, or they simply stop practicing their skills and don't take on apprentices (perhaps because they are busy trying to survive, can't get work in that field, or can't get the materials to perform their jobs).