Peak Minerals: Peak Ore
It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.
-- Sir Fred Hoyle, Of Men and Galaxies, 1964
The Wall Street Journal
December 18, 2007
Mining Firms Bulk Up, Echoing Big Oil Mergers
BHP Bid for Rio Heralds A New Era for Resources;
The OPEC of Iron Ore?
By PATRICK BARTA and ROBERT GUY MATTHEWS
"As with oil, most of the world's easy, high-grade mineral deposits have been tapped, leaving resources that are lower-grade, harder to reach or in politically challenging locations. By merging, miners hope to tackle the complex projects that remain."
Bronze Age was possible only because copper ores available then assayed 30-50% metal and were therefore processable by the primitive firing technologies of the day. Today's world best copper mines average less than 0.8% copper, hence requiring enormous amount of both energy and material scaffolding to render the ore into useable metal. This gives true meaning to the statement that "every new technology comes into existence only in order to resolve the shortcomings of the existing technology."
As every half-bright student of history and theogony, as well as physics, should know, intellect on this planet has but one direction to go, which is forward, and therefore one chance, and one chance only. Those who think we can just use up the oil/gas/coal/uranium/tar/shales and then quietly slip back to 1765 are plain missing the second half of the picture. When the slide begins, there is no resource ledge left unspoiled in the commons on which we may establish a foothold for a new start - it will be all the way back to the caves.
Strangely enough, I feel relieved, rather than alarmed. This madness cannot continue much longer - even if a miracle happened right now and Nikola Tesla, Tony Bearden, Jean-Luc Pickard, or Bart Simpson gave us inexhaustible energy from 'negentropy' today. Man on the Planet Earth is through. ...
Until then, be a good American and make a pile of money blowing the whistle. It will make a pile of good to you and family when your Equals stop by to claim the contents of your pantry. Then, give generously and die smilingly. After all, this world is a perfect work of a perfect Creator - and we are all One.
Warning: The mining boom is fading fast
30 October 2007
A Monash University environmental engineer has warned in a new report that mineral resources are running out, excavation costs are escalating and the environmental costs of mining are devastating.
The world-first report, The Sustainability of Mining in Australia: Key Trends and Their Environmental Implications for the Future, was authored by Monash researcher and lecturer Dr Gavin Mudd in conjunction with the independent Mineral Policy Institute.
Dr Mudd said the statistics were alarming. "On average, 27 tonnes of greenhouse emissions are created to mine a tonne of uranium. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of nine family cars. To mine one kilogram of gold it takes 691,000 litres of water, and it takes 141 kilograms of cyanide to produce a single kilogram of gold. ...
"It takes a minimum of two million tonnes of solid waste to produce asingle kilogram of gold. Copper produces around 250 tonnes of solid waste per tonne of copper while uranium produces about 2,400 tonnes of low-level radioactive waste per tonne of uranium oxide."
The landmark report reveals critical trends in the mining industry:
- A decline in mineral and ore grades
- A dramatic increase in waste rock and tailings -- now at several billions of tonnes annually, much of it posing a long-term risk to the environment
- Incomplete sustainability reporting -- many companies refuse to accurately report relevant data, including waste rock, tailings, energy, cyanide or water consumption
Posted by Chris Vernon on October 15, 2007 - 1:00pm
This is a guest post from Ugo Bardi and Marco Pagani. Ugo Bardi teaches chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. He is the president of the Italian section of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) (www.aspoitalia.net). Marco Pagani is a physicist presently teaching and physics in secondary schools. He is a member of ASPO-Italy, a social and environmental activist, and the blogger of ecoalfabeta. (ecoalfabeta.blogosfere.it)
Abstract: We examined the world production of 57 minerals reported in the database of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Of these, we found 11 cases where production has clearly peaked and is now declining. Several more may be peaking or be close to peaking. Fitting the production curve with a logistic function we see that, in most cases, the ultimate amount extrapolated from the fitting corresponds well to the amount obtained summing the cumulative production so far and the reserves estimated by the USGS. These results are a clear indication that the Hubbert model is valid for the worldwide production of minerals and not just for regional cases. It strongly supports the concept that “Peak oil” is just one of several cases of worldwide peaking and decline of a depletable resource. Many more mineral resources may peak worldwide and start their decline in the near future.
and comments ...
robert2734 on October 16, 2007 - 12:06pm | Permalink | Subthread
Unlike oil, metals really do have an abiotic origin. At what rate does a plume of metal bearing magma ooze out of the mantle and condense in the Earth's crust close enough to the surface? I'm not a geologist so I wonder if anyone has measured this?
Many of our richest metal mines are former asteroid strikes. For example the Sudbury nickel mine. In the long run, at random intervals, this is a replenishing resource if we survive the initial discomfort stage.
metalman on October 16, 2007 - 6:44pm | Permalink | Subthread
I am a geologist, and the Sudbury nickel-palladium-platinum mine remains controversial. Most today accept it as the site of an impact, but far fewer accept that the extraterrestrial object was necessarily the source of the metals (ditto for Bushveld chromium-platinum mines in South Africa). There are many otherwise similar mines (e.g., Stillwater in Montana and Noril'sk in Russia) that show no indications of an impact. Your argument is more convincing for the Moon, and has been used to justify lunar prospecting and mining. It also probably applies to Mars.
‘Peak metal’ problems loom, warns scientist
Raymond Beauchemin, Deputy Foreign Editor
Last Updated: August 07. 2008 11:32PM UAE / August 7. 2008
Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, is actually a storyteller. The tale he has to tell is this: in daily life where almost everyone has a mobile phone, television or a car, no one sees the correlation between the product and the raw materials necessary in its fabrication.
“In any mine, you find a poor chap pulling the metal out by hand. At the opposite, polar end of the chain, at the recycling spot, the labour conditions, the humanitarian conditions, are horrible,” he said.
Countries in South Asia and Africa, where labour is cheap and poverty widespread, are where most scrap metal is sent to be disassembled, a potentially dangerous job given the noxious and often harmful chemicals involved. “People using these devices must know they are part of the story,” said Mr Reller.
Now for the scary part: the world is running out of the raw materials used to make televisions, laptops, mobile phones and many of the other digital gadgets of the 21st century.
An article in New Scientist magazine last year quoted Mr Reller as having said the Earth has 10 years left of indium, which – although only one gram of it is used in a 32-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) television – is absolutely essential to the screen’s clarity. Indium is also used in the windows of aeroplanes and trains. The metal’s rarity has driven up its price. In 2003, the metal sold for about $60 (Dh220) per kilogram. By 2007, the price had shot up to more than $1,000 per kg.
Mr Reller now shies away from giving expiration dates for precious metals. It leads to speculation, he said, and the higher price can lead to conflict, as in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where a war was fought 10 years ago partly over Rwandan-controlled mines of columbite-tantalite (coltan), one of 25 different metals needed to make one mobile phone.
Resource use has become a global geopolitical issue. By way of example, Mr Reller said China holds a lot of mineral sources, but it is short in copper. “If you follow Chinese politics, you’ll see they are in Africa; they go where they find copper.” China also has about 60 per cent of the world’s refined indium production and one-fourth of indium reserves, but that amounts to only about 1,300 tonnes, according to geology.com.
Among other metals the Earth is running out of are gallium, also used in mobile phones, and which, with indium, is being used to make a new type of ultra-efficient solar cell; platinum, zinc, copper, nickel and phosphorous.
The scarcity of metals has made news around the world recently. In July, a Japanese ship carrying lead and zinc was seized by Somali pirates; there has been a rise of 150 per cent in the theft of all metals in Britain over the past 24 months, including iron railings and 400,000 beer kegs; and in Philadelphia, 2,500 manhole covers and sewer grates have been stolen in the past year, costing the city about $300,000 a year in replacement costs.
The use of metals Mr Reller is studying, including the possibility of their depletion, has led to the idea of “peak metal”, similar in notion to “peak oil”, which refers to the maximum rate of oil production given that it is a finite resource. Metals, too, are finite resources except, as Mr Reller points out, when they are used they do not evaporate into the air. Metals can be recovered, but only to a point.
“We have to do a better job recycling, so these items don’t end up in the trash,” said Glen Hiemstra of Washington state, founder of futurist.com.
“We must continually, as all labs do, look for alternative materials that can give you the same results.”
What the world needs, Mr Hiemstra said, is “breakthrough thinking on every level about everything, about how to do things more efficiently, with different materials, and sustainably”.
People, however, will continue to want to live a high-quality lifestyle. But it will have to be done with less material consumption,” he said.
“It cannot be done with current stocks of raw materials. I learnt at the Prince of Wales programme on business and the environment at Cambridge University in May that it would take six Earths to enable eight billion people to live a ‘western/Dubai’ lifestyle.”
Both Mr Reller and Mr Hiemstra suggested that substitution might be part of the answer. “Silicon can replace copper in phone lines,” Mr Hiemstra said. “Wireless can replace physical things altogether, and for electricity transmission we can replace physical wires with electromagnetic waves, among other things.”
One problem with substitution, however, is that substitutes rely on technology and so far the technology has not kept pace with itself.
“Substitution is often possible, but frequently degrades performance,” Thomas Graedel, a professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “In addition, a substitute material may not be available on the timescale needed, or in the quantities needed.”
Mr Reller, working with the World Environment Center in Washington and Augsburg to involve governments and industries in examining metal issues, and creating modules to teach his concepts returned to his initial thought. “People using these devices must know they are part of the story.” And the people to whom he is referring are not living in third world countries. “Metals always end up in the rich society,” he said. With the exception of mobile phones, “poor people can’t afford any metal device”.
It is possible that at some future point, the world will become sated with its digital playthings, but that time is not here. “In the long term,” Mr Graedel wrote, “ethical questions will certainly arise if we pay no attention to possible constraints on nonrenewable resources.”
Where Have All the Metals Gone?
L. David Roper
Department of Physics
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia 24060-0435
roperld @ vt.edu
The Metals and Minerals Fuels Crisis: Facts and predictions
Richard A. Arndt and L. David Roper
855. Peak Oil is not Alone
Regular Conventional Oil flows out of the ground relatively easily and quickly; and gas, being a gas not a liquid, flows from the wellhead even faster. Both are therefore subject to rapid natural depletion, with the peak of production in a country coming more or less when half the total has been extracted, save where production has been constrained for some external reason.
But if we turn to Non-Conventional oils, such as occur in tarsands or oil shales, we find a different situation with the resource itself being very large, but the extraction rates slow, more costly and in some cases environmentally damaging. Coal is step further down the ladder, having to be mined and dug up with pick and shovel, in a process that itself consumes a lot of energy. Still another step down the ladder is uranium used as a fuel for nuclear power, but takes much concentration and processing.
Professor Rui Rosa of ASPO Portugal has covered the subject in an interesting paper, of which there is room only to quote the introduction.
Exergy Cost of Extracting Mineral Resources
Rui N. Rosa1, and Diogo R. N. Rosa 2,3
1 University of Évora, Physics Dept. and Geophysics Center, 7000-671 Évora, Portugal, email: email@example.com
2 INETI-Geociências, Estrada da Portela, Alfragide, 2720-866 Amadora, and
3 University of Lisbon, Geology Dept. and
CREMINER, 1749-016 Lisboa, Portugal, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mineral deposits are considered as natural capital whose value can be assessed in exergy terms. Historical industry experience provides evidence that discovery and exploitation of mineral deposits are essentially energy intensive and that the persisting decline of the grade of the developed deposits demands increasing exergy replacement costs. The results demonstrate how far processed ores and concentrates are from ideal behaviour, and technologies from reversibility conditions.
Hydrocarbon reservoirs and ore deposits are natural bodies which hold exceptionally highly concentrated exergy. However, further exergy has to be spent in extracting and concentrating the raw materials from Earth, in order to produce commodities, final goods and services to the economic sphere. For mineral commodities in general, the increasing exergy cost of extraction and production is an indicator of depletion. In extracting or capturing energy resources, an increasing exergy cost per unit product also indicates depletion, but in this case the exergy expenditure per exergy delivered becomes a limiting factor of energy availability.
Exergy accounts for the thermodynamic distance from a state of reference representing the environment. It comprises physical and chemical exergy. The latter accounts for the energy stored in the atomic bonds of molecules in relation to the binding energy of every constitutive element in the reference state; but when different minerals or substances are mixed, besides the chemical exergy of each component, a mixing exergy has to be considered too.
When extracting a raw-material from the crust or the sea-water, one cannot ignore that the whole separation process is a chain of technical procedures in which molecular or atomic bonds have to be broken at progressively smaller scales before the desired separation is achieved; exergy has to be spent at every step in the process.
In the mining of ore deposits, rock blasting, crushing, grinding and milling are mechanical steps in a size reducing process, required to liberate mineral species. But in general substances occur mixed and separation is a very exergy intensive process.
Physical or chemical methods - such as inertial, magnetic, aerodynamic, hydrodynamic, flotation, ion-exchange or other - are used to separate the mineral species of interest. When the final product is a chemical element, pyro-metallurgical (smelting or roasting) or hydro-metallurgical (leaching or dissolution, precipitation, ion-exchange, electrolysis and so on) processing assisted by chemical reagents break the final bonds and liberate the desired element.
Separation or un-mixing exergy is often referred to either as a serious limitation or rather an irrelevant contribution to the extraction of particular mineral commodities. This point ought to be clarified. Mixing entropy and the correspondent separation exergy reflect the proportion of the constitutive substances in the mixture; they both exhibit a logarithmic dependence on the relative molecular contents or grades, but this applies strictly to ideal gases or ideal solutions, in the absence of molecular interactions. When the substances are interacting like solutes in a strong solution or minerals in a rock, the binding energy is also reflected in the entropy of the mixture, through the ionic activity or the interfacial energy, and separation exergy becomes therefore larger.
Actual separation processes are not perfect at all, and the exergy actually required can be quite larger than the theoretical limit.
The reason is that in the technical separation one has to work far away from ideal state and equilibrium conditions, in order to maintain economic throughputs, so that molecular or atomic interactions cannot be avoided and dissipative losses are always present. Moreover, the species to be separated can have rather similar properties, such that the separation factor of an individual step might be very low and accordingly the un-mixing process might require a multistage long procedure. For instance, separating water in desalination is less exergy demanding than enriching uranium (for equivalent molar amounts); but in both cases the exergy expenditure per unit product increases sharply with increasing degree of attained separation.
Breaking bonds down to crystal grain or to atomic levels requires the expenditure of exergy; some of this spent exergy might be recovered (by means of heat regeneration or reagent recycling and so on) but all stages are irreversible to some extent and some of them are entirely irreversible (such as crushing rock). This paper emphasises how far ores and concentrates are from ideal behaviour and technologies from reversibility conditions. One should realize the limits to the growth of production of certain mineral products.
864. Peak Phosphorus
An article by Déry and Anderson in the Energy Bulletin of 13 th August finds that the production of phosphates, essential to agriculture, has passed its peak. Much came from the small Pacific island of Nauru, where production peaked in 1973, leaving a desolated land surface. Production in the USA evidently peaked in 1988 and the world as a whole a year later.
Phosphates have increased crop yields enormously allowing the population to expand. The phosphorus is not destroyed being apparently excreted by those who eat the food grown on it. This would seem to be a strong justification for the construction of anaerobic digesters, which can treat sewage and other organic waste, yielding methane gas from which electricity can be generated, and returning rich nutrients, including phosphorus, to the soil.
The issue of population is a sensitive one, to which some people take offence, but in logic it does rather look as if the six-fold increase in population during the First Half of the Oil Age may be matched by a corresponding decline during the Second Half. (Reference furnished by William Tamblyn)
Association for the Study of Peak Oil - Newsletter 52 - April 2005
524. Life after Oil William Stanton provides a revealing image of life after oil. It sounds rather attractive for the survivors at least.
Living fairly comfortably without fossil fuels
The popular assumption is that renewable energy sources, perhaps including uranium, plutonium and just possibly nuclear fusion, will smoothly replace fossil fuels as these become scarce, thanks to our inherited technological expertise.
Unfortunately, the popular assumption could hardly be more wrong. Wind, wave and tide turbines, of which so much is expected, are constructed and maintained using massive tonnages of steel and concrete. These are basic bulk materials which are cheap and abundant today, but will soon be seriously scarce and expensive. Why? Because without fossil fuels, where will the lavish amounts of energy needed to mine, quarry, transport, smelt, process and refine the raw components of power-hungry concrete and steel come from? Not from the trickle of renewable electricity that they themselves, in the form of wind, wave or tide turbines, will provide.
Solar, geothermal and hydroelectric renewable generators are similarly dependant on power-hungry metals, concrete, plastics and glass.
Reflections: The Death of Gallium
by Robert Silverberg
I mourn for the dodo, poor fat flightless bird, extinct since the eighteenth century. I grieve for the great auk, virtually wiped out by zealous Viking huntsmen a thousand years ago and finished off by hungry Greenlanders around 1760. I think the world would be more interesting if such extinct creatures as the moa, the giant ground sloth, the passenger pigeon, and the quagga still moved among us. It surely would be a lively place if we had a few tyrannosaurs or brontosaurs on hand. (Though not in my neighborhood, please.) And I’d find it great fun to watch one of those PBS nature documentaries showing the migratory habits of the woolly mammoth. They’re all gone, though, along with the speckled cormorant, Steller’s sea cow, the Hispaniola hutia, the aurochs, the Irish elk, and all too many other species.
But now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.
Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away or three, or six and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.
I’ve understood the idea of extinction since I was a small boy, staring goggle-eyed at the dinosaur skeletons in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Bad things happen a climate change, perhaps, or the appearance on the scene of very efficient new predators and whole species of animals and plants vanish, never to return. But elements? The extinction of entire elements, the disappearance of actual chunks of the periodic table, is not something I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to. Except now, thanks to Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg.
The concept has occasionally turned up in science fiction. I remember reading, long ago, S.S. Held’s novel The Death of Iron, which was serialized in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories starting in September, 1932. (No, I’m not that old but a short-lived SF magazine called Wonder Story Annual reprinted the Held novel in 1952, when I was in college, and that’s when I first encountered it.)
Because I was an assiduous collector of old science fiction magazines long ago, I also have that 1932 Gernsback magazine on my desk right now. Gernsback frequently bought translation rights to European science fiction books for his magazine, and The Death of Iron was one of them. The invaluable Donald Tuck Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy tells me that Held was French, and La Mort du Fer was originally published in Paris in 1931. Indeed, the sketch of Held in Wonder Stories Gernsback illustrated every story he published with a sketch of its author shows a man of about forty, quintessentially French in physiognomy, with a lean, tapering face, intensely penetrating eyes, a conspicuous nose, an elegant dark goatee. Not even a Google search turns up any scrap of biographical information about him, but at least, thanks to Hugo Gernsback, I know what he looked like.
The Death of Iron is, as its name implies, a disaster novel. A mysterious disease attacks the structural integrity of the machinery used by a French steel company. “The modifications of the texture of the metal itself,” we are told the translation is by Fletcher Pratt, himself a great writer of fantasy and science fiction in an earlier era “these dry, dusty knots encysted in the mass, some of them imperceptible to the naked eye and others as big as walnuts; these cinder-like stains, sometimes black and sometimes blue, running through the steel, seemed to have been produced by a process unknown to modern science.” Which is indeed the case: a disease, quickly named siderosis, is found to have attacked everything iron at the steel plant, and the disease proves to be contagious, propagating itself from one piece of metal to another. Everything made of iron turns porous and crumbles.
Sacre bleu! Quel catastrophe! No more airplanes, no more trains or buses, no bridges, no weapons, no scissors, no shovels, no can-openers, no high-rise buildings. Subtract one vital element and in short order society collapses into Neolithic anarchy, and then into a nomadic post-technological society founded on mysticism and magic. This forgotten book has an exciting tale to tell, and tells it very well.
It’s just a fantasy, of course. In the real world iron is in no danger of extinction from strange diseases, nor is our supply of it running low. And, though I said a couple of paragraphs ago that the ninety-two natural elements are essential building blocks of the universe, the truth is that we’ve been getting along without two of them numbers 85 and 87 in the periodic table for quite some time. The periodic table indicates that they ought to be there, but they’re nowhere to be found in nature. Element 85, astatine, finally was synthesized at the University of California in 1940. It’s a radioactive element with the very short half-life of 8.3 hours, and whatever supply of it was present at the creation of the world vanished billions of years ago. The other blank place in the periodic table, the one that should have been occupied by element 87, was filled in 1939 by a French scientist, who named it, naturally, francium. It is created by the radioactive decay of actinium, which itself is a decay product of uranium-235, and has a half-life of just 21 minutes. So for all intents and purposes the world must do without element 87, and we are none the worse for that.
Gallium’s atomic number is 31. It’s a blue-white metal first discovered in 1831, and has certain unusual properties, like a very low melting point and an unwillingness to oxidize, that make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors, a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in ultraviolet lamps. It’s also quite important in making the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen television sets and computer monitors.
As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use. Indium, another endangered element number 49 in the periodic table is similar to gallium in many ways, has many of the same uses (plus some others it’s a gasoline additive, for example, and a component of the control rods used in nuclear reactors) and is being consumed much faster than we are finding it. Dr. Reller gives it about another decade. Hafnium, element 72, is in only slightly better shape. There aren’t any hafnium mines around; it lurks hidden in minute quantities in minerals that contain zirconium, from which it is extracted by a complicated process that would take me three or four pages to explain. We use a lot of it in computer chips and, like indium, in the control rods of nuclear reactors, but the problem is that we don’t have a lot of it. Dr. Reller thinks it’ll be gone somewhere around 2017. Even zinc, commonplace old zinc that is alloyed with copper to make brass, and which the United States used for ordinary one-cent coins when copper was in short supply in World War II, has a Reller extinction date of 2037. (How does a novel called The Death of Brass grab you?)
Zinc was never rare. We mine millions of tons a year of it. But the supply is finite and the demand is infinite, and that’s bad news. Even copper, as I noted above, is deemed to be at risk. We humans move to and fro upon the earth, gobbling up everything in sight, and some things aren’t replaceable.
Solutions will be needed, if we want to go on having things like television screens and solar panels and computer chips. Synthesizing the necessary elements, or finding workable substitutes for them, is one obvious idea. Recycling these vanishing elements from discarded equipment is another. We can always try to make our high-tech devices more efficient, at least so far as their need for these substances goes. And discovering better ways of separating the rare elements from the matrices in which they exist as bare traces would help the furnace-flue solution. (Platinum, for example, always in short supply, constitutes 1.5 parts per million of urban dust and grime, which is ever-abundant.)
But the sobering truth is that we still have millions of years to go before our own extinction date, or so we hope, and at our present rate of consumption we are likely to deplete most of the natural resources this planet has handed us. We have set up breeding and conservation programs to guard the few remaining whooping cranes, Indian rhinoceroses, and Siberian tigers. But we can’t exactly set up a reservation somewhere where the supply of gallium and hafnium can quietly replenish itself. And once the scientists have started talking about our chances of running out of copper, we know that the future is rapidly moving in on us and big changes lie ahead.
Earth's natural wealth: an audit
23 May 2007
NewScientist.com news service
"I GET excited every time I see a street cleaner," says Hazel Prichard.
It's what they collect in their sacks that gets her juices flowing,
because the grime and litter they sweep up off the streets is laced with
traces of platinum, one of the world's rarest and most expensive metals.
The catalytic converters that keep exhaust pollutants from cars, trucks
and buses down to an acceptable level all use platinum, and over the
years it is slowly but steadily lost through these vehicles' exhaust
pipes. Prichard, a geologist at the University of Cardiff in the UK,
reckons that tonnes of the stuff is being sprayed out onto the world's
streets and highways every year, and she is hunting for places where it
is concentrated enough to be worth recovering. One of her prime targets
is the waste containers in road-sweeping machines.
This could prove lucrative, but Prichard is motivated by something far
more significant than the chance of a quick buck. Platinum is a vital
component not only of catalytic converters but also of fuel cells - and
supplies are running out. It has been estimated that if all the 500
million vehicles in use today were re-equipped with fuel cells,
operating losses would mean that all the world's sources of platinum
would be exhausted within 15 years. Unlike with oil or diamonds, there
is no synthetic alternative: platinum is a chemical element, and once we
have used it all there is no way on earth of getting any more. What
price then pollution-free cities?
It's not just the world's platinum that is being used up at an alarming
rate. The same goes for many other rare metals such as indium, which is
being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for
flat-screen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic
devices like cellphones. How long will global reserves of uranium last
in a new nuclear age? Even reserves of such commonplace elements as
zinc, copper, nickel and the phosphorus used in fertiliser will run out
in the not-too-distant future. So just what proportion of these
materials have we used up so far, and how much is there left to go round?
Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we rely on these elements, we can't
be sure. For a start, the annual global consumption of most precious
metals is not known with any certainty. Estimating the extractable
reserves of many metals is also difficult. For rare metals such as
indium and gallium, these figures are kept a closely guarded secret by
mining companies. Governments and academics are only just starting to
realise that there could be a problem looming, so studies of the issue
are few and far between.
Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in
Germany, and his colleagues are among the few groups who have been
investigating the problem. He estimates that we have, at best, 10 years
before we run out of indium. Its impending scarcity could already be
reflected in its price: in January 2003 the metal sold for around $60
per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per
Uncertainties like this pose far-reaching questions. In particular, they
call into doubt dreams that the planet might one day provide all its
citizens with the sort of lifestyle now enjoyed in the west. A handful
of geologists around the world have calculated the costs of new
technologies in terms of the materials they use and the implications of
their spreading to the developing world. All agree that the planet's
booming population and rising standards of living are set to put
unprecedented demands on the materials that only Earth itself can
provide. Limitations on how much of these materials is available could
even mean that some technologies are not worth pursuing long term.
Take the metal gallium, which along with indium is used to make indium
gallium arsenide. This is the semiconducting material at the heart of a
new generation of solar cells that promise to be up to twice as
efficient as conventional designs. Reserves of both metals are disputed,
but in a recent report René Kleijn, a chemist at Leiden University in
the Netherlands, concludes that current reserves "would not allow a
substantial contribution of these cells" to the future supply of solar
electricity. He estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to
less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells - a limitation imposed
purely by a lack of raw material.
To get a feel for the scale of the problem, we have turned to data from
the US Geological Survey's annual reports and UN statistics on global
population. This has allowed us to estimate the effect that increases in
living standards will have on the time it will take for key minerals to
run out (see Graphs). How many years, for instance, would these minerals
last if every human on the planet were to consume them at just half the
rate of an average US resident today?
The calculations are crude - they don't take into account any increase
in demand due to new technologies, and also assume that current
production equals consumption. Yet even based on these assumptions, they
point to some alarming conclusions. Without more recycling, antimony,
which is used to make flame retardant materials, will run out in 15
years, silver in 10 and indium in under five. In a more sophisticated
analysis, Reller has included the effects of new technologies, and
projects how many years we have left for some key metals. He estimates
that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium - which is
increasingly important in computer chips - could be gone by 2017, and
terbium - used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs -
could run out before 2012. It all puts our present rate of consumption
into frightening perspective (see Diagram).
Our hunger for metals and minerals may not grow indefinitely, however.
When Tom Graedel and colleagues at Yale University looked at figures for
the consumption of iron - one of our planet's most plentiful metals -
they found that per capita consumption in the US levelled off around
1980. "This suggests there might be only so many iron bridges, buildings
and cars a member of a technologically advanced society needs," Graedel
says. He is now studying whether this plateau is a universal phenomenon,
in which case it might be possible to predict the future iron
requirements of developing nations. Whether consumption of other metals
is also set to plateau seems more questionable. Demand for copper, the
only other metal Graedel has studied, shows no sign of levelling off,
and based on 2006 figures for per capita consumption he calculates that
by 2100 global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable
from the ground.
So what can be done? Reller is unequivocal: "We need to minimise waste,
find substitutes where possible, and recycle the rest." Prichard,
working with Lynne Macaskie at the University of Birmingham in the UK,
has found that platinum makes up as much as 1.5 parts per million of
roadside dust. They are now seeking out the largest of these urban
platinum deposits, and Macaskie is developing a bacterial process that
will efficiently extract the platinum from the dust.
Other metals could be obtained in equally unorthodox places. Cities are
huge stores of metals that could be repurposed, Kleijn points out.
Replacing copper water pipes with plastic, say, would free up large
quantities of copper for other uses. Tailings from worked-out mines
contain small amounts of minerals that may become economic to extract.
Some metals could be taken from seawater. "It's all a matter of energy
cost," he says. "You could go to the moon to mine precious materials.
The question is: could you afford it?"
These may sound like drastic solutions, but as Graedel points out in a
paper published last year (Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, vol 103, p 1209), "Virgin stocks of several metals appear
inadequate to sustain the modern 'developed world' quality of life for
all of Earth's people under contemporary technology." And when resources
run short, conflict is often not far behind. It is widely acknowledged
that one of the key motives for civil war in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo between 1998 and 2002 was the riches to be had from the
country's mineral resources, including tantalum mines - the biggest in
Africa. The war coincided with a surge in the price of the metal caused
by the increasing popularity of mobile phones (New Scientist, 7 April
2001, p 46).
Similar tensions over supplies of other rare metals are not hard to
imagine. The Chinese government is supplementing its natural deposits of
rare metals by investing in mineral mines in Africa and buying up
high-tech scrap to extract metals that are key to its developing
industries. The US now imports over 90 per cent of its so-called "rare
earth" metals from China, according to the US Geological Survey. If
China decided to cut off the supply, that would create a big risk of
conflict, says Reller.
Reller and Graedel say urgent action is required. Firstly, we need
accurate estimates of global reserves and precise figures for
consumption. Then we need to set up an accelerated programme to recycle,
reuse and, where possible, replace rare elements with more abundant
ones. Without all this, any dream of a more equitable future for
humanity will come to nothing.
Governments seem, at last, to be taking the issue seriously, and next
month an OECD working group will be convened to come up with some of the
answers. If that goes to plan, we will soon at least have a clearer idea
of the problem. Whether any solution to looming global shortages can
then be found remains to be seen.
From issue 2605 of New Scientist magazine, 23 May 2007, page 34-41
Thinking of throwing out your old cell phone? Think again. Maybe you should mine it first for gold, silver, copper and a host of other metals embedded in the electronics — many of which are enjoying near-record prices.
It’s called “urban mining”, scavenging through the scrap metal in old electronic products in search of such gems as iridium and gold, and it is a growth industry around the world as metal prices skyrocket.
The materials recovered are reused in new electronics parts and the gold and other precious metals are melted down and sold as ingots to jewellers and investors as well as back to manufacturers who use gold in the circuit boards of mobile phones because gold conducts electricity even better than copper.
“It can be precious or minor metals, we want to recycle whatever we can,” said Tadahiko Sekigawa, president of Eco-System Recycling Co which is owned by Dowa Holdings Co Ltd.
A tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams (0.18 ounce) of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams (5.3 ounce) or more, according to a study by Yokohama Metal Co Ltd, another recycling firm.
The same volume of discarded mobile phones also contains around 100 kg (220 lb) of copper and 3 kg (6.6 lb) of silver, among other metals.
Recycling has gained in importance as metals prices hit record highs. Gold is trading at around $890 (449 pounds) an ounce, after hitting a historic high of $1,030.80 in March.
Copper and tin are also around record highs and silver prices are well above long term averages.
Recycling electronics makes sense for Japan which has few natural resources to feed its billion dollar electronics industry but does have tens of millions of old cell phones and other obsolete consumer electronic gadgets thrown away every year.
“To some it’s just a mountain of garbage, but for others it’s a gold mine,” said Nozomu Yamanaka, manager of the Eco-Systems recycling plant where mounds of discarded cell phones and other electronics gadgets are taken apart for their metal value.
At the factory in Honjo, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Tokyo, 34-year-old Susumu Arai harvests some of that bounty.
A ribbon of molten gold flows into a mould where it sizzles and spits fire for a few minutes before solidifying into a dull yellow slab, on its way to becoming a 3 kg (6.6 lb) gold bar, worth around $90,000 at current prices.
Wearing plastic goggles to protect his eyes while he works, Arai said he was awestruck when he started his job two years ago.
“Now I find it fun being able to recover not just gold, but all sorts of metals,” he said.
The scrap electronics and other industrial waste is first sorted and dismantled by hand. It is then immersed in chemicals to dissolve unwanted materials and the remaining metal is refined.
Eco-System, established 20 years ago near Tokyo, typically produces about 200-300 kg (440-660 lb) of gold bars a month with a 99.99 percent purity, worth about $5.9 million to $8.8 million.
That’s about the same output as a small gold mine.
Eco-System also recovers metals from old memory chips, cables and even black ink which contain silver and palladium.
RECYCLING CELL PHONES
But despite growing interest in the environment and recycling, the industry struggles to get enough old mobile phones to feed its recycling plants.
Japan’s 128 million population uses their cell phones for an average of two years and eight months.
That’s a lot of cell phone phones discarded every year, yet only 10-20 percent are recycled as people often opt to store them in their cupboards due to concerns about the personal data on their phones, said Yoshinori Yajima, a director at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Just 558 tonnes of old phones were collected for recycling in the year to March 2007, down a third from three years earlier, industry figures show.
As metals prices rise, the Japanese industry faces growing competition for scrap, which is pushing up prices.
“We are seeing more competition from Chinese firms, and naturally the goods go where the money is,” Dowa’s Takashi Morise said.
In response, Japanese firms are importing used circuit boards from Singapore and Indonesia, as they also contain valuable minor metals that Japan is particularly eager to recover.
These minor metals such as indium, a vital component in the production of flat panel televisions and computer screens, antimony and bismuth are indispensable for producing many high-tech products.
However, they are often not easy to acquire as China has tightened export controls, making it harder for Japanese manufacturers to buy these metals.
That’s where the “urban miners” step in.
“Our wish is to be able to help Japanese manufacturers that need these metals,” Eco-System President Sekigawa said.
Firefighters unable to save house due to copper thieves
TOM RISEN Staff Writer
April 23, 2008 - 11:02AM
HESPERIA — Firefighters were unable to douse an early morning blaze in time because copper fittings worth a mere $8 had been stolen from all five fire hydrants on the block