Peak Metals - What happens when we run out ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

SBS has a report on peak metals (a subject that I don't find particularly worrisome) and peak oil - Peak Metals - What happens when we run out?.

In the 1950's, an American geoscientist came up with the term 'peak oil', to describe the moment when the maximum rate of petrol extraction from the earth would be hit - and academics in Australia are starting to talk about the very same problems faced by our metal mining industry.

Marion King Hubbert claimed that oil production in US mainland states would peak between 1965 and 1970. In the end, production in most US states is widely agreed to have peaked in 1971.

But in his native Texas, the year was 1972. And half a world away that same year, the young Club of Rome think tank was gathering attention with The Limits to Growth, a book causing a stir by confronting the issue of finite resources.

The Club of Rome is widely held as one of the kick-starters in the debate over minerals sustainability.

And while many metals can be recycled, whereas oil cannot, scientists are using the concept to deliver an understanding of the impacts of mining to the wider public.

Put simply, the extraction of virgin ores from the earth's crust will peak - indeed, it already has for many.

Although the theory is not without its detractors, there is no doubt that the metals that drive our society are finite resources - and extracting them from the earth has to end.

The question is what countries like Australia, who have a gross domestic product so linked to mining, will do in such a scenario.

'Peak oil' theory itself, in operation, will directly influence the mining and minerals industry through rising fuel costs, each increase edging away at the sustainability of the process.


Why don't you find peak metals particularly worrisome?

A few reasons :

1. I haven't seen any examples of metals where we are scratching to find decent new ore bodies.

2. We don't destroy metals - they can be recycled (the key difference between oil and metals).

3. There are few metals that don't have some sort of acceptable substitute available.

There might be a few ructions along the way. Steel might turn out to be a problem, believe it or not. But not because we're "running out" of iron ore.

Conceptually, what's happening at present is that iron ore is being taken from Australia, smelted into iron and then steel, and being locked up in infrastructure and vehicles in China.

(Here, I'm using 'Australia' and 'China' as concrete representatives for a process that's happening the world over.)

Recycling can't meet our needs until the world's stock of bridges, buildings, ships, and cars has stabilized--we're scrapping as much as we build every year--and for the world, that's a long way off. In the mean-time, we need iron ore to build new stuff.

OK, there's plenty of iron ore--we won't run out, not a chance. But what about smelting the ore? That's done using coking coal, and supplies of that do seem to be getting tighter. Vaclav Smil has a small essay about this:

As you know, Gav, Smil is no "peaknik", but he sees a problem here. There are no scalable alternatives to coking coal at present. Something might be developed in a few decades, but it's sure to be more expensive in energy terms.

Oh, and there aren't any serious substitutes for steel, either. Not at scale. We can use it more efficiently, but we're always going to need lots of it.

Anonymous   says 5:28 PM

Hi Big Gav,
Did you read the article Greg linked to? It was interesting, but the conclusion was that we'd be using Coke for smelting steel for generations to come.

he also mentioned using natural gas, which I didn't know about, and given that George Monbiot is really upset about the potential for Underground Coal gasification to increase our coal reserves to even mining it from under the sea floor!

Then he also points out that a renewable energy world will require an enormous smart grid and millions of wind turbines which will only increase the demand of steel.

So... does it matter if we dump all the carbon into the atmosphere now, or over the next few generations as we are forced to use it to smelt steel? EIther way it still ends up in the air.

This is where maybe Tom Blee's concept of the Plasma recycler can siphon off all the gas from everything from council lawn clippings through to dirty nappies.

It's an amazing chapter to read, and so downloading the PDF is well worth it! I don't know if it will generate the sheer volumes of carbon (in gas form) for the steel industry that... but this thing seems to party resmelt the metals it is recycling anyway, and maybe in a generation or 2 green chemistry will have replaced our need for steel anyway.

Anonymous   says 5:39 PM

@ Greg:

the biomass to replace coking steel could concievably come from the Sahara instead of the Amazon if this project really scales up!

<a href=">Seawater Greenhouse</a>.

But my guess is that if we adopt GenIV nukes that eat nuclear waste, we'd have enough electric power to run all our transport needs on electricity, convert the USA's 1 million tons a day of Municiple Solid Waste (by 2020 estimates) into gas and construction materials through the Plasma waste recycler, and pump who knows how many tons of Syngas into the steel grid?

Apparently 1 million tons of MSW = about 5% of America's electricity if the syngas is burned to run both the plasma plant and the excess is poured back into the grid, see PDF chapter above. Truly one of the best subjects I've read about since discovering biochar, and Big Gav will tell you what a big moment that was in my life! ;-)

@ Eclipse Now:

The seawater greenhouse thing is brilliant. Like all great ideas it is obvious--now that it's been thought of! I wish them every success.

For energy, we don't have a shortage of things that will work. What we have is a shortage of time to scale one or more of them up to, say, the size of the coal industry. And that, in turn, is because people have irrational objections to each of them.

Climate change and peak oil are not technical problems--they're people problems. Just like pretty much every other difficult problem.

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