earth-dayyyI can never recall whether it’s we hurrying to hell in a handcart or whether we’re supposed to think of that handcart hurtling towards us. But whichever way around it is today’s the day we’re supposed to worry about it all, how the ecosystem that supports us all is about to go “poof” in a splurge of our own greed and consumerism. That is, it’s Earth Day once again.

Things have rather moved on from the first time around: we all rather laugh at Paul Ehrlich’s frantic cries of “people, people, people!” in crowds who were a tad darker and more curry stained than he felt comfortable with those years ago. We’ve noticed that richer people tend to have fewer children than poorer ones and as the world has become richer fertility rates have plummeted. So much so that we expect peak population to be in the next few decades and the number of people to decline thereafter. That’s one problem that’s already been solved. In fact, other than hte climate change thing we seem to have a pretty firm grasp on all of the things that people have been terrifying us with over the decades.

The question then being, well, why have they been terrifying us with these things? My answer to that comes from actually having some expertise in one small part of the world, that of weird metals. And the answer itself is that the people doing the terrifying simply don’t know what they’re talking about. My favourite example of this is from the New Scientist in 2007.

Uncertainties like this pose far-reaching questions. In particular, they call into doubt dreams that the planet might one day provide all its citizens with the sort of lifestyle now enjoyed in the west. A handful of geologists around the world have calculated the costs of new technologies in terms of the materials they use and the implications of their spreading to the developing world. All agree that the planet’s booming population and rising standards of living are set to put unprecedented demands on the materials that only Earth itself can provide. Limitations on how much of these materials is available could even mean that some technologies are not worth pursuing long term.

Take the metal gallium, which along with indium is used to make indium gallium arsenide. This is the semiconducting material at the heart of a new generation of solar cells that promise to be up to twice as efficient as conventional designs. Reserves of both metals are disputed, but in a recent report René Kleijn, a chemist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, concludes that current reserves “would not allow a substantial contribution of these cells” to the future supply of solar electricity. He estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells – a limitation imposed purely by a lack of raw material.

From which I conclude that Mr. Kleijn does not know what a mineral reserve is nor where gallium comes from. They go on as well:

To get a feel for the scale of the problem, we have turned to data from the US Geological Survey’s annual reports and UN statistics on global population. This has allowed us to estimate the effect that increases in living standards will have on the time it will take for key minerals to run out (see Graphs). How many years, for instance, would these minerals last if every human on the planet were to consume them at just half the rate of an average US resident today?

The calculations are crude – they don’t take into account any increase in demand due to new technologies, and also assume that current production equals consumption. Yet even based on these assumptions, they point to some alarming conclusions. Without more recycling, antimony, which is used to make flame retardant materials, will run out in 15 years, silver in 10 and indium in under five. In a more sophisticated analysis, Reller has included the effects of new technologies, and projects how many years we have left for some key metals. He estimates that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium – which is increasingly important in computer chips – could be gone by 2017, and terbium – used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs – could run out before 2012. It all puts our present rate of consumption into frightening perspective.

And at this point I and anyone who knows anything about minerals or weird metals just starts to fall about laughing. Because they’re showing the most laughable ignorance of the subject under discussion.

Here’s what they’re doing. They’re looking at the USGS numbers (the USGS is the right place to start but that’s all they’ve understood) for the level of reserves of these various metals. Then they’re looking at consumption, calculating the number of years and concluding that if reserves are 5 years’ consumption then we run out in five years. This, in itself, is insane. For “mineral reserve” is a legal/economic concept, not a description of what is available to us. It is the ores that we have identified, sampled, tested, and proven we can extract our desired metal from using current technologies, at current prices, and make a profit from. This is very useful when trying to decide what a mine is worth. It’s not useful when describing very much else.

We can and should go further here too. We only go to the length of proving that reserves exist when we’re just on the cusp of actually digging them up. Reserves are thus best thought of as the working stock of currently working mines, nothing else. As an example of this I know of a nickel mine in Madagascar. They’re spent $4 billion on it so fat. There’s definitely nickel there, they’re producing it in small quantities. They also know there’s millions of tonnes there because they’ve drilled and tested and sampled. But even that nickel in a working mine isn’t yet, technically, a reserve, because they’ve not proven that they can make a profit yet.

A reserve is something very different indeed from being what’s available to us. It’s also not true to think that when the reserves run out we’ve got to get lucky in finding somewhere we can make a new mine. Because we already know where we might put a new mine: that’s what we call mineral resources. These are the deposits that we think we might be able to mine, at current prices, with current technology, and make a profit, but we’ve not spent the millions to billions to prove it yet. It’s only after we’ve run out of resources that we’ve got to worry about finding new supplies. And, for the two fertiliser ingredients phosphorous and potassium, our resources are currently 1,500 and 13,000 years worth. This might just be a problem we can leave to a succeeding generation.

All of which is bad enough from our intrepid investigators for the New Scientist. But matters get worse once again. For the metals that they decide to look at are produced as byproducts. Something that means that there are no reserves of them at all. So, the finding that there are no reserves of metals that there are no reserves of might not be the greatest scientific breakthrough ever. And the reason there are no reserves is because of our definition of what a mineral reserve is. We have to be able to make a profit extracting that metal. And there’s no ore on the planet that we can process for its hafnium, indium, gallium or germanium content and make a profit. Thus there are no reserves. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no supply of these metals. For there’s not been any reserves of those metals for the past century either but we have been able to use them. This mystery is solved by the way that we mine for other metals then, if we wish to, process these “byproduct” metals out of the wastes that remain.

It’s the ignorance of this that leads to the idea that hafnium might run out in three years’ time. for we never mine for it, there are no ores of it, we get it from the wastes of mining zirconium. All zircon (the sand, zirconia the oxide and zirconium the metal) contains 2-4% hafnium for a 3% average. We don’t normally bother to separate them they’re so similar but we do bother when we’re going to use the Zr in hte nuclear industry. Those nice fuel rods that people think are going to catch fire at Fukushima for example. The reason we do is that Zr is transparent to neutrons, Hf is opaque. So we need to take the Hf out: usually so that we can make it into control rods to put in nuclear reactors actually. But that’s where our hafnium comes from: the preparation of nuclear grade zirconium. As such there are no mineral reserves of hafnium. So looking at reserves to work out when it will run out isn’t all that helpful. Especially when we mine 600,000 tonnes a year of Zr, containing perhaps 18,000 tonnes of Hf and as a planet we use perhaps 500 tonnes of Hf each year. There’s no shortage: we just don’t bother to extract what we don’t want to use.

The same is true of those electronic metals, indium, gallium and germanium. We get them from the wastes of other processes, not directly for themselves. Therefore there’s no reserves: but to say that no reserves equals no availability is nonsense, poppycock of the highest order. Gallium, for example, to get more of that you just approach you friendly local alumina maker and ask if you can put a little ion exchange unit on the side of his Bayer Process plant. There’s some 80 million tonnes of “red mud” coming out of those plants each year and that red mud will be 100 ppm Ga. Plenty to be going on with given that globally we use perhaps 400 tonnes of gallium a year (and that includes recycling). There’s a 1,000 year supply just in the bauxite we already know that we’re going to try to put through Bayer Process plants to make red mud.

Germanium is much the same. The most common source is from fly ash from coal burning. The original coal contains Ge, this gets concentrated into the fine ash that goes up the chimney and now that we collect that rather than spray it over the countryside we can extract it. The process was first worked out in the late 1940s some 10 miles from where I sit in the Czech Republic today. 40% of global supply comes from a coal fired power station in China that does exactly this (their local coal is high in Ge). And should anyone want to have their own germanium plant, maybe the people building multi-junction solar cells, I could build you one for perhaps $5 million. Got the 90’s update to that 50’s Czech technology sitting on my desk and the local brown coal plant would be delighted to see us all come and take care of a pollution problem of his. And there’s around 150 million tonnes a year of this fly ash globally and it’s all got some Ge in it. 50 to 500 ppm sort of levels, when global usage is around 100 tonnes a year. We’re not going to run out of it.

What we’re really seeing here is what happens to anyone who is expert in anything who then reads a newspaper article about it. We all, always, spot some problem in the explanation or exegesis. Here’s it’s that the researchers, trying to link mineral reserves with an estimation of when we’re going to run out of stuff don’t actually know what a reserve is and then try to apply that to metals that don’t even have reserves. I do know about reserves and I also know about byproduct metals so I can see where they’re going wrong.

I don’t know the technical details of a lot of other things that we’re told to worry about on Earth Day. But knowing as I do one of the details of one of the scares, the imminent exhaustion of mineral reserves, I’m sorely tempted to dismiss them all.

Anyone want to posit, other than climate change, one that I should be taking seriously?

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]