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From timesonline.com


Out of this world: are we running out of materials?


Next time you go hospital for a scan, spare a thought for the machine itself: the materials on which its function depends, are running out, and very few people seem to know or care. The former chief scientific officer, Professor Sir David King cares. He will tell anyone who asks, that we are about to enter a period of history where resources wars are a distinct possibility. He claims that there are just not enough of certain materials on planet to sustain the growing use of hospital equipment, electronics, and many other new technologies.

He is not the only one. Geoscientist Harald Sverdrup and colleagues at the University of Lund in Sweden have recently calculated that silver, gold, zinc, tin and indium will become scarce within 30 years. Professor Tom Graedel from Yale is more worried about copper, predicting that even with recycling there will soon not be enough to meet global demand. Almost everyone agrees that helium will become very scarce in 20 years, and since its liquid helium that cools MRI machines along with many other hospital diagnostic equipment, that is very bad news indeed.

The reason these scientists are being ignored is simple, they don't understand economics, or so the economists claim. They agree that if you extrapolate levels of consumption forward to a time when there are 9 billion people on the planet -- all wanting health, holidays and electronics -- that materials will become more expensive as the supply becomes limited. But, they argue, this will create incentives for further mining and exploration, as well as spur industries to create new technologies that are less wasteful. It will also mean that recycling, instead of being a drain on the economy, will start to become very profitable.

The economists have history on their side, they point to innumerable instances of commodity prices going through the roof, causing short-term economic shocks, such as the oil crisis of the 1970s. But they say human ingenuity, technology and the economic markets that fund them, have always come to the rescue.

Phew that's alright then. Good to know that the economists have got a handle on this potential materials crisis. But before we all relax about the issue, its worth pointing out that these market based theories imply three things. Firstly, that humans will go on being as ingenious as we have in the past, finding new and better ways to extract minerals from increasingly depleted Earth. As a materials scientist working in King's College London, I hang around a lot with people who do this kind of work, and I can say I find this eminently believable. There is no shortage of talent and enthusiasm in the UK labs.

Secondly, that surges in prices and crashes are built into the system, they are a consequence of a market driven commodity market. This seem an innocuous economic statement, until you consider that such phenomena devastate the mining communities and sometimes even whole countries that rely on this income. High commodity prices can and do cause civil wars to erupt in developing countries, keeping dictators in power, or leading to invasions. Price crashes can be equally devastating causing poverty and starvation.

Thirdly, the models assume that environmental impact of mining a depleted Earth is factored into the price. This however, is very unlikely to be the case. For instance, mining a ton of platinum, requires the mining of 650,000 tons of ore. That creates a lot of carbon dioxide to warm the Earth. This seems bad, but on the other side of the equation the platinum is used in catalytic convertors to decrease the harmful exhaust of cars in cities. Such environmental paradoxes, are a common feature of many new technologies, including recycling technologies, and are hard to factor into a market driven price.

There is one more thing worrying me. The deposits of crude oil took millions of years to form in the bowls of the Earth, and yet at current rates of consumption we will use them up in the next 30 to 50 years. As a result most plastics, adhesives, waxes, and creams will disappear from our lives, unless they can be obtained from crops. But then they will have to compete with food crops and perhaps fuel crops, for a world of 9 billion people. We could stop burning oil and safeguard it for the future, but "the market says no". If the market will allow us to lose oil, perhaps it will also allow us to lose helium and other materials too.

For the duration of our lives I have no doubt that the economists are right, and that markets will slake our thirst for cars, electronics, and hospital scans. But I am equally sure that the real cost will be borne by the poor in developing countries, whether be through 'resource wars' or fragile economies. As for future generations, it seems certain that the markets will deliver them a depleted Earth. We badly need a new way to think about the complexities of consumption on a finite planet.

Mark Miodownik

Dr Mark Miodownik is Head of the Materials Research Group at King's College, London. He is presenting Out of This World on Thursday February 11 at 9pm on BBC Radio 4.

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