Access previous chapters here.
Metals & Other Minerals
Without metals and a host of other non-renewable minerals, industrial economies could not function. Metals are essential for energy production; for making factory tools, transportation vehicles, and agricultural machinery; and for building the infrastructure of highways, pipes, and power lines that enables modern civilization to function. Hi-tech electronics industries rely on a host of rare metallic and non-metallic minerals ranging from antimony to zinc. All are depleting, and some are already at economically worrisome levels of scarcity.
In principle, there is no sustainable rate of extraction for non-renewable resources: every instance of extraction represents a step toward “running out.” During the twentieth century, though, new mining technologies enabled commercially available supplies of most minerals to increase substantially. Ore qualities gradually declined as the low-hanging fruit disappeared, but this trend was countered by the investment of increasing amounts of cheap energy in mining and refining. Globalization also helped, as users of non-renewable resources gained access to virgin deposits in countries where labor costs for mining were minimal. Resource substitution and recycling likewise played their parts in keeping mineral and metal prices low and generally declining.
That price trend seems to have reversed. During the past decade, production rates for many industrially important non-renewable resources have leveled off or, in some cases, begun to decline, while prices have risen. Several recent articles, reports, and studies highlight the predicament of depleting mines, declining ore quality, and rising prices. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that within the U.S. many mineral resources are well past their peak rates of production. These include bauxite ( whose production peaked in 1943), copper (1998), iron ore (1951), magnesium (1966), phosphate rock (1980), potash (1967), rare earth metals (1984), tin (1945), titanium (1964), and zinc (1969). As Tom Graedel at Yale University pointed out in a 2006 paper, “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.”
The following are just a few examples:
For thousands of years, metal smiths made tools from melted-down “bog iron” (which was mainly composed of an iron-rich ore called goethite), using charcoal as a fuel. In the more recent past iron miners began to extract lower-grade ores such as natural hematite, which were then smelted in coke-fed blast furnaces. Today miners must rely more heavily on taconite, a flint-like ore containing less than 30 percent magnetite and hematite.
According to Julian Phillips, editor of Gold Forecaster newsletter, deposits of gold that can be easily mined will probably be exhausted in about 20 years.
There are 17 rare earth elements (REEs) with names like lanthanum, neodymium, europium, and yttrium. They are critical to a variety of high-tech products including catalytic converters, color TV and flat panel displays, permanent magnets, batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, and medical devices; to manufacturing processes like petroleum refining; and to various defense systems like missiles, jet engines, and satellite components. REEs are even used in making the giant electromagnets in modern wind turbines. But rare earth mines are failing to keep up with demand. China produces 97 percent of the world’s REEs, and has issued a series of contradictory public statements about whether, and in what amounts, it intends to continue exporting these elements. The options for other nations, such as the U.S., are to find substitutes for REEs or to identify new economically viable REE reserves elsewhere in the world.
Indium is used in indium tin oxide, which is a thin-film conductor in flat-panel television screens. Armin Reller, a materials chemist, and his colleagues at the University of Augsburg in Germany have been investigating the problem of indium depletion. Reller estimates that the world has, at best, 10 years before production begins to decline; known deposits will be exhausted by 2028, so new deposits will have to be found and developed. Some analysts are now suggesting that shortages of energy minerals including indium, REEs, and lithium for electric car batteries could trigger trade wars.
Armin Reller and his colleagues have also looked into gallium supplies. Discovered in 1831, Gallium is a blue-white metal with certain unusual properties, including a very low melting point and an unwillingness to oxidize. These make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors, a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in ultraviolet lamps. Gallium is also essential to making liquid-crystal displays in cell phones, flat-screen televisions, and computer monitors. With the explosive profusion of LCD displays in the past decade, supplies of gallium have become critical; Reller projects that by about 2017 existing sources will be exhausted.
Palladium (along with platinum and rhodium) is a primary component in the autocatalysts used in automobiles to reduce exhaust emissions. Palladium is also employed in the production of multi-layer ceramic capacitors in cellular telephones, personal and notebook computers, fax machines, and auto and home electronics. Russian stockpiles have been a key component in world palladium supply for years, but those stockpiles are nearing exhaustion, and prices for the metal have soared as a result.
Uranium is the fuel for nuclear power plants and is also used in nuclear weapons manufacturing; small amounts are employed in the leather and wood industries for stains and dyes, and as mordants of silk or wool. Depleted uranium is used in kinetic energy penetrator weapons and armor plating. In 2006, the Energy Watch Group of Germany studied world uranium supplies and issued a report concluding that, in its most optimistic scenario, the peak of world uranium production will be achieved before 2040. If large numbers of new nuclear power plants are constructed to offset the use of coal as an electricity source, then supplies will peak much sooner.
Tantalum for cell phones. Helium for blimps. The list could go on. Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that humanity is in the process of achieving Peak Everything.
1. Brian Palmer, “Has the Earth Run Out of Any Natural Resources?,” Slate, posted October 10, 2010.
2. Chris Clugston, “Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity – An Analysis,” Energy Bulletin, posted April 6, 2010.
3. James Kanter, “Europe Sounds Alarm on Minerals Shortage,” Green: A Blog About Energy and the Environment, The New York Times, posted June 16, 2010; Damien Gurco et al., Peak Minerals in Australia: A Review of Changing Impacts and Benefits, (Australia Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization, March, 2010); David Cohen, “Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit,” New Scientist 2605 (May 23, 2007), 34-41; Michael Moyer, “How Much Is Left?,” Scientific American online, multi-media presentation, posted August 24, 2010.
4. Thomas D. Kelly and Grecia R. Matos, “Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States,” United States Geological Survey, Data Series 140, 2010, http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/
5. Peter Goodchild, “Depletion of Key Resources: Facts at Your Fingertips,” Culture Change, posted January 27, 2010.
6. R. B. Gordon, M. Bertram, and T. E. Graedel, “Metal Stocks and Sustainability,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, no.5 (January 31, 2006), 1209.
7. Walter Youngquist, Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources Over Nations and Individuals (Portland OR: National Book Company, 1997).
9. Office of Policy and International Affairs, Critical Materials Strategy, U.S. Department of Energy, December, 2010.
10. David Cohen, “Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit,” New Scientist 2605 (May 23, 2007).
11. Emma Woollacott, “Shortage of Alternative Energy Minerals Will Trigger Trade Wars,” TGDaily, posted November 1, 2010.
12. Cohen, “Earth’s Natural Wealth,” New Scientist.
13. “State Palladium Stockpile Nears Depletion,” The Moscow Times, October 11, 2010.
14. Thomas Seltmann, “Nuclear Power: The Beginning of the End,” Sun & Wind Energy (Energy Watch Group, November 2009).
Image credits: Super pit—Tony Spencer/flickr; Kingman Interstate Signs—jimmy wayne/flickr