Running out of planet

A couple of meetings this last week made me go back to some work (you will need to join _connect to access the document, but it is worth it) I was involved in a few years ago and revisit the basic ideas. We are well used to thinking about running out of oil – there have been articles and books written about it for at least 30 years now. We are getting used to the idea that we are running out of the capacity of our atmosphere to absorb different gases and not change its properties. The one we mostly don’t think too much about is running out of the stuff that makes up our planet. There are a couple of reasons why I have to go back to first principles every time I run across this problem.

The first is that I am not an economist. I worked for 28 years in industry and – to my knowledge – never met an economist. I therefore never learned their language. This has given me a serious problem in my newer roles working with government in that I haven’t yet met an economist I really understand. Economists think big. They consider the flow of money around our planet. They consider what life would be like in 100 years. I am totally in awe of what they say but cannot quite follow their logic!

The second is a real admission. Although I was trained as a chemist, I am an organic polymer chemist. This means I never bothered much to go beyond the first two 2 lines of the Periodic Table and regard the catalytic properties of some metals as little short of magic.

The meetings were caused by the coming together of DEFRA, FCO and BIS to think about “rare earths”. I assume from the types of questions I got that economists are involved, and we would do well to make the extra effort to understand them. I guess people always start with the “rare earths” because their very name gives a clue to the problem, but the problem goes further than the Scandium, Yttrium and the Lanthanide series in the periodic table. (Sorry about that, but the chemist in me keeps coming out.) This is really about how we use the materials that make up our planet.

In my lifetime, we have used more of the Earth’s resources than we have in the rest of our history – and we are not slowing down. This challenge is to make us think about how to address this situation.

The challenge comes in the form of three questions.

The first question is “is there is enough of the particular resource to satisfy the needs of our civilisation?” This is “supply and demand” (literally) at a global scale. It is extraordinarily difficult to work out how much of a particular element exists in our planet. It is in the realm of “earth scientists” to work this out. They tend to talk about how much is in the lithosphere, which is what they call the earth’s crust. We have some elements in abundance, but others are rarer. This is not the whole question though. The other half of the question is “how much do we use?” Copper is a good example, and the work of Tom Graedel and co-workers is well documented in scientific articles and on the web. They have worked out how much copper is contained in the supply chain. We have copper in pipes, wires, electrical circuits and all manner of things we take for granted. Tom has worked out that in America, every person uses about 144 kg of copper to support their lifestyle. The equivalent amount for China is currently 35 kg. If everyone in China had the same lifestyle as the average American, we would need 1.7 billion tonnes to meet the demand. This is more than the “earth scientists” think we have by about 10%.

The second question ”what does it cost to get it out?” Metals exist mostly as ores or in complex mixtures with other metals. Extracting them costs energy and (especially for ores which are reduced with carbon) produces lots of carbon dioxide. If you look at the data you will find that Rhodium produces 6 million times more carbon dioxide than Iron in its production. As a responsible person, I would have foresworn its use, were it not for the fact that it costs 10 times more than Gold and I don’t think I use any! As we use more, we have to balance out the cost of production with the value in use. This is a case where the economists’ long-term vision is needed. In the Material Security document I linked to at the beginning, there is an interesting tale about Ruthenium. About a decade ago, some producers decided they could sell more, so invested in research into new uses of Ruthenium. A couple of years later, these new uses came on-stream and the demand – and hence the price – rocketed. Now we have a problem with these new applications being more expensive than anticipated and we are dispersing the Ruthenium all over the place in little amounts making it difficult to recover.

The third question we need to ask is the most difficult. It is the question of whether the particular element is the best one for the job. That little story of Ruthenium gives us a clue. If you go looking for new uses for almost any material you will find complacent sitting tenants and you can take their market. This is where people need the imagination to look for the new materials that satisfy the needs of the application – not simply use what everyone else has done before, but look for new materials. People have done this for ages, but the twist now is that they need to bear in mind the environmental cost of their selection. This is where building design into the front end of product development is key. Work out what you are trying to achieve and ask whether the mechanical, chemical and other functional properties are the ones needed. Ask whether they change over time. And then ask for the full lifetime cost of the materials you are considering. How much does it really cost to produce them – and will it change as we understand and use the environmental cost?

So, what should you do? For a start, you should explore the subject and look at documents like the one I mentioned. Not as a good read, but as a source of scary facts. One of the things that makes decisions in this area difficult is ignorance. If you don’t know the facts, you can’t have any meaningful input to the discussion. Once you’ve read it, you can then ask questions. And don’t expect the answers to be soothing!



Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:07

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