Re: possible future shortages of other resources

From: Darryl Maddox (
Date: Wed Aug 01 2001 - 14:28:55 EDT

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    Thanks for the opinions and information.

    On metals etc.

    I realize elements are in a fairly constant quantity on the human time scale and that we recycle those that are expensive and that when some materials get too expensive a less expensive alternative is found. But what I was, and still am, wondering about is that as our technology grows there may be some uses for which only one material is suitable and that use may range from being a convenience to being essential. From what little I know about it many of the materials on which our modern technologies rest are materials which are not common, or are not uniformly distributed around the earth in amounts that can be economically viable. And, after their use in manufacturing etc, some of this stuff inevitably winds up being scattered around in such small quantities that the cost of recovery is less than the cost of producing the raw material, at least up to a point, and that point is where the trouble will start.

    Some examples, some probably better than others.

    Palladium went from some tens of dollars per ounce in the 1960's to its current value of around $600 per ounce. It went up because someone found a use for it and there wasn't much to be had. And who cared about rhodium until a few years ago? It's price bounced along from $100 - $500 per troy ounce until 1978 and was as low as about 350/troy ounce in 1983 before staraing a rocket ride to over $3500 per ounce in 1992 before falling back to less than $500/ounce in 1997 and 1998. Its recent price was back over $2000 per ounce some few months ago because Russia was either holding out on us or couldn't get the stuff shipped. And scandium?!!. When I first saw the cost curves on that metal I couldn't believe my eyes - according to Spectrum Chemical Fact Sheet (5/22/00) "The metal is expensive, costing about $120/g with a purity of 99.9%", and according to the USGS data for the year 1998 (the most recent I have) it was $285/gram for the powdered metal form, 99.9% pure. Even at $100/gram this is $3100 - $2835 per ounce (depending on whether you are using troy or avedpois ounces. That is a lot more than gold and it makes me think this stuff has to be really good for something other than being added to aluminum to make baseball bats; and either there isn't much of it or it costs a fortune to refine it out of the parent rock/mineral. I have to think that it wouldn't take much to interupt the flow of this stuff and if that flow is cut off someone somewhere (other than little league ball players) is going to be mightly inconvenienced. How many other metals are there such as these whose availability play an increasinly important role in industry and thus in international policy because of their ability to affect nations abilties to improve their standard of living? I don't know. But as things get more complicated it seems to me that small glitches in supply will have increasing significance.

    On weather and water,

    Being a geologist and teaching historical geology each spring I am aware not only that there are much hotter places on earth than Amarillo Texas, but also that there are places which are simply more uncomfortable and/or more subject to serious consequences of weather changes and that the global climate chages. I heard this morning on my way to school that Oklahoma City was expecting a daily high near 100 and given their usual realtive humidity I wouldn't go there for less than a lot of money. I'll take the high (3300 ft +/-) and dry. Houston is also pretty hot I think, though I haven't heard any specific numbers or complaints from friends and relatives who live there, but the flood last month shut down most of the medical center part of town. The last estimate I heard was > $2 billion in losses with one hospital system I know of taking a 300 million dollar loss + 5 million a day in lost income for a couple of weeks before they began bringing buildings back on-line. I think one major teaching hospital is still shut down though they may have re-opened in the past week or so.

    You mentioned that Amarillo is only 1000 miles from water. Such ideas have been discussed periodically, but not recently, around here. Some had suggested building canals from major river systems etc but the economics were never there so they dammed the Canadian River instead. Now the situation is turned around completely. Amarillo and a good part of the Texas Panhandle are underlain by the Ogallala formation which varies in thickness from 0 - 500 ft +/- and in most places is a very good aquifer. But it is finite in volume, the water table has been falling for decades due to irrigation and so the city of Amaillo has purchased water rights from various landowners out to a radius of some 75 miles. The water from the wells now being used and those that will be drilled in the future are blended with the lake water. But now the landowners adjacent to those who sold their water rights to the city for its future use are looking for a way to sell their water to someone and they are considering building pipelines south and soutwest. This has caused some political controversy around here for a couple of reasons. First, water is held in esteem pretty close to God by most of the rural folks and the thought of selling it to another region just goes too much against their way of doing things. Second, the person heading the movement to sell the water is Boone Pickens whom you and some of the other list readers may remeber as being a famous/infamous oil and gas man from this part of the country. Whatever your opion of the way he ran his business and his opinions on how such businesses should be run, it's hard to argue with his thesis that when the city starts pumping water from those new wells in a few years, the water under his land will move laterally toward the wells and he will be loosing an asset. The only way he sees to protect himself (and the other in the same area) is to set up a system whereby all the landowners sell their water simultaneously. Time will tell how this will resovle itself.


    --- Original Message -----
      From: Vandergraaf, Chuck
      To: 'Darryl Maddox'
      Sent: Wednesday, August 01, 2001 8:07 AM
      Subject: RE: possible future shortages of other resources


      The Hubbert curve for the production of resources (a modified Bell shaped curve indicating growth, equilibrium and decline) applies to all non-renewable, finite resources. Some resources are considered so valuable that we don't throw them out but recycle them. For example, you won't find many gold rings in landfill sites. For other elements, such as iron, there is so much around, that most of us in North America think twice about towing the old family chariot to the dump.

      We need to keep in mind that we have exactly the same amount of Au, Fe, Cd, Si, Al, etc., on the earth now as we had 5 000 years ago. Well, with the exception of U-235; the amount has decreased somewhat as it is fissioned in nuclear reactors. It just has been redistributed. From a thermodynamic perspective, we concentrate ores and extract chemical elements (decrease randomness). This takes energy. For many elements, we simply toss them out or otherwise disperse them (increase randomness). To get the stuff back in higher concentration, we have to decrease randomness again and that takes, ... energy.

      So, in the final analysis, energy is the required component to reorganize the elements in the way we want/need them. The alternative is to wait until geological processes do the rearranging for us, by moving the diluted elements around through moving water and depositing them in sediments and then let the rock cycle form them into ore deposits again. Most of can't wait that long, though, at least not the military. ;-)

      As for water, the same applies: there is no less water now than there was 5 000 years ago. It is just being redistributed. I sympathize with you po' folks in Amarillo, but (and I'm not trying to be callous) you are no worse off than the poor folks in the sub-Sahara that see the sand of the desert coming closer and closer, or the people in Kiribati or in parts of Florida who may risk losing their country when the Ocean level rises. But, there again, in Amarillo, you are only ~1 000 km from a very plentiful water supply: the Gulf of Mexico. All you need to do is build a desalination plant along its shores and pipe the water to Amarillo. All it takes is energy. And that's where people like Glen Morton raise the warning flag.

      Chuck Vandergraaf

        -----Original Message-----
        From: Darryl Maddox []
        Sent: Wednesday August 01, 2001 6:40 AM
        Subject: possible future shortages of other resources

        The recent information and discussions about oil production curves and the effects of a decrease in annual hydrocarbon production at a time when nations are trying to improve their standard of living by increasing their utilization of energy for manufacturing, travel, and agriculture caused me to wonder if anyone has applied similar mathematical models to other natural resources which may be cricital to a high standard of living. The first that comes to mind is good old low tech water, but that is because we here in Amarillo Texas have come through the hottest (as measured by the number of days the official daily high temperature reached or exceeded 100 {13 vs 10 for previous high in 1934} and driest (0.04 inches of rain vs mothly average of 2.64) July on record for us. While most people understand our need for water I suspect most don't have any idea there are many minerals and elements which are critical to some degree or other to our standard of living, to our technologies for manufacturing luxury items, for manufacturing things that make the daily tasks of living easier or more pleasant, for manufacturing items that are essential to our current way of living, working and communicating, and lastly and most importantly to our defense AND that some of these elements and minerals may be getting in short supply.

        Anyone have thoughts or information on this variation of the energy shortage qustion?


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