RE: possible future shortages of other resources

From: Vandergraaf, Chuck (
Date: Wed Aug 01 2001 - 22:08:26 EDT

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    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.
    It probably all comes down to economics. As I mentioned in my previous
    post, if the materials we need is valuable enough, we will make sure we
    don't scatter it around, e.g., diamonds, gold. The point "where trouble
    will start" is not really a "point" but more of a time period. When the
    stuff gets to be scarce, only the wealthy can afford it and the rest does
    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.
    I think that there is relatively little Sc in the earth's crust and it is
    chemically similar to other elements, which makes separation difficult. I
    was not aware that is was used in baseball bats but there can't be much Sc
    in each bat, otherwise baseball bats would be priced so that only
    professional baseball players could afford them. Some years ago, Cr was in
    short supply and the only major suppliers, I believe, were the Soviet Union
    and Rhodesia. When Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia passed the UDI
    (Unilateral Declaration of Independence), the West banned the import of Cr
    from Rhodesia. One result: a lot less chrome on cars. And so it goes:
    supplies dry up and we find alternatives. A lot of things, like chrome
    trims on cars, we can do without. Elements such as Ta and Se are used in
    semiconductor industry and one would think that the semiconductor industry
    would be hard up if the supplies of these elements dried up (not likely for
    Ta; there is a large deposit less than 100 km from here). But, think of all
    the motherboards that have outlived their usefulness. A convenient source
    of precious elements if we wanted to go through the bother to separate it.
    Again, energy prices come into play. If it is cheaper in the short run to
    mine tantalite, purify it, and ship it to Silicon Valley, we're not likely
    to recycle old motherboards.
    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.
    Yes, and we don't know what causes these calamities. Even if it could be
    shown with 95% certainty that these calamities are caused by CO2 emissions,
    we'd all collectively point our fingers at our neighbours.
    The atmosphere in southern Ontario has been distinctly foul the last couple
    of weeks, according to the media. Yet, do you think that people drive less
    and use their air conditioners less?
    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.
    My comment about Amarillo being 1000 km (not miles) from the Gulf of Mexico
    was a bit tongue in cheek. I am aware of the Ogallalla reservoir and that
    it is being depleted: another example of a non-renewable (on a certain time
    scale) resource. How much water is being recycled in Amarillo?
    Thanks for the info on water rights. I can't imagine how somebody can "own"
    this stuff, especially considering how mobile it is, laterally.
    --- Original Message -----

    From: Vandergraaf, Chuck <>
    To: 'Darryl Maddox' <>
    Cc: <>
    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
    Anyone have thoughts or information on this variation of the energy shortage

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