We’re probably all now aware of the idea of peak oil. The earth is finite, and we can’t suck an infinite amount of oil out of it. But oil isn’t the only resource which is reaching its peak. Various important metals are running out even faster:
Indium, gallium and hafnium are some of the least-known elements on the periodic table, but New Scientist warns that reserves of these low-profile minerals and others like them might soon be exhausted thanks to the demand for flat screens and other high-tech goods. Scientists who have tried to estimate how long the world’s mineral supply can meet global demand have made some gloomy predictions.
Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, estimates that in 10 years the world will run out of indium, used for making liquid-crystal displays for flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. He also predicts that the world will run out of zinc by 2037, and hafnium, an increasingly important part of computer chips, by 2017.
It’s not just the world’s platinum that is being used up at an alarming rate. The same goes for many other rare metals such as indium, which is being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for flat-screen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic devices like cellphones. How long will global reserves of uranium last in a new nuclear age? Even reserves of such commonplace elements as zinc, copper, nickel and the phosphorus used in fertiliser will run out in the not-too-distant future. So just what proportion of these materials have we used up so far, and how much is there left to go round?
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
The US now imports over 90 per cent of its so-called “rare earth” metals from China, according to the US Geological Survey. If China decided to cut off the supply, that would create a big risk of conflict, says Reller.
That was written in 2007. In 2009 the scenario quoted in the last extract is about to come to pass. China is planning to stop exporting rare metals:
Beijing is drawing up plans to prohibit or restrict exports of rare earth metals that are produced only in China and play a vital role in cutting edge technology, from hybrid cars and catalytic converters, to superconductors, and precision-guided weapons.
A draft report by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. Other metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum will be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year, far below global needs.
China mines over 95pc of the world’s rare earth minerals, mostly in Inner Mongolia. The move to hoard reserves is the clearest sign to date that the global struggle for diminishing resources is shifting into a new phase. Countries may find it hard to obtain key materials at any price.