Peak Oil? Try Peak Everything

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Written by Scott Gilbert

By now we should all be familiar with the concept of peak oil – that the world is running out of a non-renewable resource. There are about a trillion barrels of conventional oil left, and we are using about 27 billion barrels per day, so even if current consumption and rates of extraction remain the same (which they almost certainly will increase), then we have only about 35 years left of the oil glut we have become so accustomed to. While there are other sources such as the tar sands in Alberta, these supplies are not only incredibly damaging to our environment, but also require vastly large energy inputs per barrel of oil extracted so the ratio of input to output is constantly working against us.

But the point of this article is to broaden the picture beyond just oil. There are countless non-renewable resources on earth, almost all of which are declining (well, at least the ones we can make use of). This topic was addressed in a 2007 article in New Scientist titled “Earth's natural wealth: an audit”, where author David Cohen details a host of mineral deposits used in everything from LCD televisions to car batteries that are in sharp decline.

The charts and graphics included in this exceptional piece are worth checking out. They are however based largely on informed guesses and compiling data from various sources because, as the author rightly points out, numbers for annual global consumption of many precious metals are not known with much certainty, and extractable reserves of many of them are tightly guarded secrets of the mining industry. But if we examine the data that is publicly available a number of things are clear – primarily that we are running out very quickly of many elements essential to our aspirations about the future.

One example that experts point to is indium (used to make LCD monitors), which they say we have at best 10 years left of at current rates. The supply and demand dynamics are supported by this as the price of the element in January 2003 was $60 per kilogram and by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram. Current economic woes would drop the price for the time being, but not increase the supply of this non-renewable resource.

Even elements as well-known as silver (used in catalytic converters in all modern cars) has between 9 and 29 years left. These values are for what is known as “virgin supplies” - the amount of the mineral in raw, untouched deposits remaining in the ground, and the range of 9 to 29 depends on if we continue with current consumption (29 years), compared to if the rest of the world were to use 50% of what the US currently does per capita (9 years). The real value is likely somewhere in between. Surely there are huge stockpiles of silver held by banks in the form of silver bars, and silver inside of existing catalytic converters that could theoretically be recycled. But the point is that once we dig up all the remaining silver on the planet, we will have to start tapping these other reserves.

And this is where the problems really start to set in. For many of these elements a certain amount of recycling is possible, but the reason catalytic converters are piling up in junk yards and sold for next to nothing is that extracting the elements from them is very costly, time consuming, and the process is unlikely to recover every bit that went into the initial production. Recycling will by necessity be integral to our element mining over the coming century, but the longer we do it the less will be actually recoverable with every iteration of essential products like the catalytic converter (which is currently used to dramatically reduce vehicle emissions).

Another element commonly found in catalytic converters is platinum. The platinum that goes into making a catalytic converter is bit by bit ejected from the system over time as the car is driven. These traces of the precious elements are then deposited onto the thousands of miles of road the car travels over during its life. Right now there are projects under way to try and salvage platinum from the basins of street cleaning machines that are found to be heavily laced with the substance (that's right – a very profitable upcoming business opportunity is extracting platinum from street cleaner waste bags).

However you can see that as time passes, the actual amount we can reasonably recover is constantly diminished. The amount of platinum that goes into making a brand new catalytic converter is nowhere near what could be recovered from recycling it because much of it gets deposited onto roads over time. Of that amount that hits the street, only a portion is ever picked up by street cleaners. Of the amount picked up by street cleaners, only a portion is recoverable. And at what cost? There is a point of diminishing returns where the cost to recover the minute quantities becomes prohibitive.

The catalytic converter is a good example of how our ambitious goals of reducing carbon emissions (and addressing other environmental concerns) might be thwarted by a lack of access to resources beyond the obvious ones like oil. If electric cars are supposed to save us from peak oil, what happens when we run out of the resources needed to make the batteries, or the uranium needed to supply the power plants used to generate the electricity in the first place?

Even if we set cars aside, we should be worried about the infrastructure involved in powering our homes and other industrial activities. Electricity is transmitted largely through copper wire, of which virgin copper reserves will be entirely gone within our lifetimes. We will need to start “mining” our old houses and removing the copper pipes to be turned into copper wire (assuming we can make new pipes from PVC).

What will our future look like – and particularly the business world – when we run out of tantalum, used in the production of cell phones? With the prospect of cell phones being impossible to make 100 years from now we have much to think about.

What is most concerning is that elements like tantalum are not part of our regular vocabulary. Even many pro-wind power advocates are unaware of the dwindling nickel reserves needed to produce turbines or the batteries to store the energy they produce.

It certainly appears we have much to fret about, but little if anything is being done. A sight all too common is of cell phone recycling bins found on campus that see only one or two donations per year on a campus where thousands are disposed of annually. Will we find a way to secure the resources needed to build the future of tomorrow that we all envision, or are we consuming them all now at unprecedented rates and locking them up in difficult to recycle products that are designed largely for short-term use and subsequent disposal?

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  1. Posted by: a chemist on Feb 8, 2009 @ 8:24pm

    Just FYI:

    If we just incinerate all the electronic waste, we get 100% of the metals back. Only problem is that people don't like the idea because of the air pollution that can occur.

    Problem solved.

  2. Posted by: another chemist on Feb 9, 2009 @ 10:37pm

    There really is no environmentally friendly way to get those precious metals back. There are Chinese people who make their livings taking apart all of this "E-waste" and salvaging the metals, but their water supplies become contaminated with all of the chemicals released from the solder in microchips. (Manufactured Landscapes Documentary)

  3. Posted by: a chemist on Feb 10, 2009 @ 11:26am

    I saw that documentary too, here was the problem: they did it outside, with no protection, with children playing in and around the computers.

    If you do it inside, under careful control, you can incinerate the crap out of everything so that all the organics burn off. What will be left is metal oxides. Metal oxides is what we mine out of the ground to make pure metals so no new technology needs to be invented aside from burning things. It is possible to invent fire that's powerful enough to destroy everything, it's how they get rid of chemical weapons where almost no release of the original chemical can be tolerated. The only problem at that point is the financing factor.

  4. Posted by: engineer on Feb 10, 2009 @ 7:53pm

    ah, the financing factor, and what you mentioned earlier - the problems with emissions. i doubt that you could burn the hell out of a computer and not release emissions that would be incredibly damaging to air quality, never mind the implications for climate change or the costs associated with purchasing the carbon credits for a massive incinerator (at bit early yes, but they are coming)

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