Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Running on Empty

Cracked has a list of "6 Important Things You Didn't Know We're Running Out Of." I generally don't look to that website for substantive news- more specifically science news- but they often have things of interest. As long as you take the information there as primarily anecdotal, and don't simply accept their claims at face value, there's plenty of articles that can lead down thought-provoking paths.

Of the three earth material resources they mention (helium, phosphorus and water) only phosphorus is one that wouldn't have come immediately to mind. I think I would have come to it eventually, but there are a number of others that might have come up faster for me. The key qualifier is "things most people wouldn't know we're running out of." So oil, for example, is not on the list. Neither are rare earth elements (REE's). The latter may not be included because they've received a fair amount of publicity over the last year or so (but then, so has fresh water in recent years), or because the issue is not running out, but competitive supplies to counterbalance China's economic lock on these strategic materials.

Likewise in opposition to REE's, we're not going to "run out" of phosphorus- there's an enormous amount of it both in the solid earth and in the hydrosphere (not to mention the biosphere). The issue is that the relatively cheap and easy to extract sources we've become dependent upon are being depleted. There are other sources, but they are more expensive to utilize. The same holds true, albeit with perhaps greater urgency and proportionally less public awareness, with fresh water.

So the issue, such as it is, is not that the earth is going to "run out" of these materials, but that between prices being kept artificially low, a lack of broad awareness of the limited nature of these resources, or at least the cheapest to use sources of them, and what strikes me as a particularly American outlook, that resources have no value unless someone is directly making money off of them, we are facing bottlenecks in a number of materials that have become indispensably important to a modern quality of life. Continuing to use these materials at our present rate is sustainable only by increasing the amount of energy and effort- that is, cost- to concentrate them into usable form.

My main concern is not so much that we will "run out" of these substances, but the profligate and irreversible ecologic damage that is likely to accompany efforts to minimize cost increases. For example, it would be comparatively cheap to augment our electricity generating capacity with coal power; coal is one resource the US is not going to run out of soon. However, even overlooking climate change- likely the most dangerous consequence of over-reliance on coal- the devastation caused by fly ash containment ponds, mercury contamination, particulate pollution, mountain-top mining, and so on and so on, should raise concerns with anyone who likes the idea of a livable environment.

So to geobloggers: What other resource(s) can you think of whose main sources are not going to last too much longer? I nominate boron, which is not an abundant element to begin with, and whose main source is evaporite deposits. It is used in glasses, ceramics, semiconductors, chemical processing, and has a very broad neutron capture cross section, which means it's good at capturing neutrons. Those of you who are old enough may remember that in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the news reports talked quite a bit about helicopters dumping sand and borax on the exposed ruin of the core. I didn't understand at the time, but the idea was to block thermal neutrons from reaching more uranium fragments, thus suppressing runaway fission. I don't know what estimates are for how long known boron resources will last at current rates of consumption, but since learning how restricted its economic occurrence is, and learning how many uses it has, it's been an element of concern for me.


Garry Hayes said...

I think you are spot on with the borates, given there are only a few mines with plentiful reserves. Of course they still own the mining patents, so they could go back to strip-mining Death Valley.

Steve Gough said...

Since my fluvial geomorph mission is mostly about river conservation, I'll add this with hopes it's not too off-topic. Ecologically it's been worked out pretty well, see this: . And I've witnessed, for example, the last Ozarkian stream ecosystem in St. Louis County destroyed. That was certainly worth a hell of a lot more than the surburban development that replaced it, but market forces don't consider these things.

Silver Fox said...

I think the key player(s) in the borate industry has tied up significant resources outside currently active mines. I don't know how large or easy to get to these additional known resources are or how quick they could be put into production if needed.

Lockwood said...

Silver- I was thinking about this some more after I posted it, and I suspect you're right. For example, I know there is quite of bit of borax in the Alvord desert, east of Steens Mt, though I don't know the degree to which that area is locked up for environmental concerns. I've read that the best deposits are in playas that drain volcanic rocks, but there's no shortage of such basins in B&R, along the Andes, or in NE Africa. I guess my concern is mainly with regards to rates vs. reserves, which I should really have tried to track down; as I admit in the post, I have no idea what those numbers might be.