Monday, July 07, 2008

Not a happy post -- skip it if you like

I've been in one of those moods lately, where I really don't know what's left to say anymore. I suppose the latest thing I've read that made me feel this way is this:
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. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though—that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away—or three, or six—and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.
In case you skipped or failed high school chemistry, elements are not the kind of thing we can produce more of, or find creative ways to produce new reserves of. The Earth is unyielding to our creative accounting measures.

But of course, in some ways this is exactly like oil. Petroleum has unique chemical and physical properties that aren't reproducible: it's an energy-dense liquid, which was created in vast quantities and disproportionately stored underground in large, easily accessible reservoirs. The fact that it's a liquid means that it can be pumped in pipelines over vast distances, cheaply refined into other liquids and gases (themselves piped around) at much lower costs than coal or natural gas.

And it's cheap, both in terms of finance and energy: time was, a barrel of oil's worth of investment would get you 50, even 100 barrels of oil worth of production out of the biggest and cheapest of fields in place like Texas and Saudi Arabia. You can sum up most of the history of the 20th century as either a) increasing use of oil or b) increasing violence over the posession of oil. In some cases (Operation Barbarossa, the Japanese invasion of Indonesia) this was naked and self-evident. In other cases (Gulf War I & II, Operation Ajax) we manage to give ourselves an appropriate fig leaf.

And, as you may have noticed, all of our current substitutes for oil suck. Alberta makes shitty oil out of a mixture of glue and dirt, America and China are prospecting the Nazi- and Apartheid-proven technology of coal-based liquid fuels, Montana might get a federal boondoggle in oil shales, and then there's ethanol, which is probably responsible for starving a few extra million people this year alone. But even if none of those things were true, it would remain true that all of these substitutes have a much, much lower EROEI than classical oil did. (It's almost certainly impossible to get the same 100:1 payback that we used to.)

Which leaves us two options: search for a new energy subsidy that won't ruin the planet, or start wrenching out every possible efficiency and conservation effort possible, or both. While I'm a big proponent of option C, you look around and it's pretty clear that we've in fact decided to pursue option D: neither, and fuck you ya Commie. I support Barack Obama, but it's clear he's in hock to corn ethanol and coal. Conservation remains a dirty word in America. Automotive unions in Canada and the US fight fuel efficiency measures tooth and nail because Asian manufacturers build better cars. The McGuinty government thinks more nuclear reactors -- at double or even triple the price we're being "promised" -- is what this province needs. And the US and Canadian governments are complicit in the desecration of Athabasca at the altar of autmotive mobility.

I try not to get down, but the bad news outweighs the good news on any given day, and when we're emptying out the periodic table of elements like it's an Advent calendar filled with sweets, you've got to figure something is wrong.

At this point, the hip green thing to do is say, "hey, don't be such a downer, the public needs positive messages or they'll be turned off". Sorry, I've been over this before: at this point in the game, optimism is a lie. If we'd started a transition 30 years ago, we might have done it painlessly. If we'd started 15 years ago, we'd still have a lot of work ahead of us but we'd be on the right track. Now, panic and crisis are the order of the day. Because -- and dig this -- the warnings of the environmental movement have been ignored for the last 30 years, and now we've run out of time.

A final note about Indium and Gallium: they are two of the elements that have shown a lot of promise in solar panels, and we are destroying our reserves building flatscreen televisions. In a very basic sense, by perpetuating the status quo we are running out of options to save ourselves. The longer the industrial system continues without change, the worse the collapse will be and the fewer means we will have to build any kind of new, optimistic, "bright green" future.


Anonymous said...

The thing I don't understand about the "extinction" of elements is where they go when they become "extinct." The basic elements can't be created or destroyed, correct? (Unless they're taking part in fission which I don't think is the case with copper, at least.)
So when we "run out" of x element, does that mean the earth's entire supply is buried in landfills?

JHMB said...

I was thinking the same thing while reading this post, Zack. Can't we take apart the flat-screen tvs and melt down our pennies recovering elements that were used in an imprudent manner?
At some point groups of people will be scouring through landfills, and I am sure it will be quite lucrative.

john said...

Recycling is necessary but insufficient. There's no such thing as 100% efficiency, and the steel industry regularly gets "only" 90%, which sounds good until you realize that after 10 cycles you've got 35% of whatever you started with.

Now consider how little of our waste is actually useable, and how vast our material flows will be by the time we get around to mining them.

In short, if we run out of virgin ores, and the status quo hasn't changed, we're fucked.

Mike said...

Sound like if we get desperate enough, asteroid mining may be coming sooner rather than later.

toujoursdan said...

The problem with asteroid mining is that it takes lots of petroleum based rocket fuel.

It is rather amazing how little we are talking about "peak everything" when this will be the world's most pressing issue in the next decade.

Renee said...

Gallium can be reclaimed, but of course it takes energy...

There is already a booming copper and gold recovery business in China from circuit boards that we ship over. Granted it's unsafe, dirty, hazardous work, but the west has never had a problem offloading that onto the 2nd world...