Sunday, July 6, 2008

Peaked out

We hear so much about peak oil and the depletion of natural resources, i.e. forests, water, etc., but I really hadn't thought about these other things.

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. This report also highlights a similarity between oil and rare earth elements used in electronics -- the vast majority are imported, often from politically unstable countries.

In fact, these elements can contribute directly to that instability. For some of the elements, like gallium, there's simply no good source of high quality ore. Oddly enough, that's one aspect of this story that might be a good thing. Those elements that are both extremely rare and isolated to a few high quality sources are a spark for corruption, murder, and environmental destruction. We may be currently engaged in a war for oil, but corporate proxies are also taking brutal actions in a war for tantalum, better known these days by the name of it's principle ore, coltan.

And from New Scientist:

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.

I'm thinking I'll need to do some more reading on this.

And here is the rest of it.

1 comment:

brenda said...

I would like to hear more about this, it seems the whole world is falling apart, piece by piece. Most of these things can be recycled, right? Or is most of this stuff ending up in the garbage in landfills across the country. I may do some research on this also. There has to be some kind of solution to at least control the usage of these metals we use day after day that we take for granted. Thank-You for the heads up on this.