Monday, March 28, 2011

What Is the World Running Out Of?

by Richard Crews
By the time the year 1900 arrived, chemists had identified all the elemental building blocks of nature. With tens of thousands of experiments--together with a lot of clever guesses--they had pieced together the rows and columns of the Periodic Table of the Elements and filled in all its gaps. It was known that there were 92 natural elements--from hydrogen, atomic number 1, to uranium, atomic number 92. However, barely half of those elements had been isolated, purified, and studied. And only a little over half of those--some 28 altogether--had found their way into one or more useful corners of human use.

But the 20th century was, among other things, "the century of materials science." Scientists and engineers aggressively pursued the usefulness of the materials they had at hand. By the time the year 2000 arrived, all 92 natural elements had been purified, studied, and put to use--all 92 were in demand for something somewhere. Uranium could be used to make powerful bombs, electric power plants where there was no flowing water, and armored shielding for tanks that was denser than lead and stronger than steel. Neodymium made stronger magnets than iron and lovely, blue-tinted glass. Indium was used in liquid crystal displays and touchscreen laptop computers. Etc.

In the meantime, geologists had rooted out sources--that is, ores--for all of those elements. But as mining and use skyrocketed, it turned out that some of the elements were in short supply.

In some cases the problems were geographic: China, for example, had almost all the good ore for a dozen of the elements--germanium, antimony, magnesium, tungsten, etc. In some cases the problems were political: with clever multi-billion dollar subsidies, China had maneuvered itself into the position of having the only active refineries for any of the rare-earth metals (scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, etc.--altogether there are 17 of them). No other countries who had rare-earth ores could compete at the price that China put those metals on the world market. Rare-earth refineries all over the world--which had been very complex and expensive to set up--went out of business, sometimes with huge piles of unrefined ores dumped nearby.

In some cases the problems were supply-and-demand economics. For example, since indium and gallium are minute byproducts of zinc and aluminum mining, unless more zinc and aluminum was needed on the world markets, it was not economical to increase the production of indium and gallium. Price-wise, the flea simply could not wag the dog.

One hears in the news about how fossil fuels, fish proteins, or clean drinking water may soon be in disastrously short supply. But in fact there are nearly two dozen chemical elements with worrisome shortages looming in the next few years. These are elements that have found important uses in the modern world--uses we have come to depend on--uses for which there are no substitutes.

We are like a rich, happy tourist running around with a pocketful of coins--but our pockets have several holes in them.