Running out of "stuff"

Yesterday, I got to take part in the launch of the Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Networks report on “Materials Security”. Followers of this blog will know that Materials UK has a long-standing interest in this subject and so, it didn’t take too much effort by Arnold Black, the energetic Director of the KTN, to persuade me to say a few words. The meeting was fairly crowded with a cross-section of MPs, Lords, public servants and businesspeople, and the resulting discussion, chaired by the host Barry Sheerman was spirited and informed. I hope the KTN is suitably proud.

As a matter of record, here is what I said.

“Arnold’s request for me to give this short talk falls into the category people in this building refer to as “courageous”. There are 2 main reasons for this.

The first is that I am not an economist. I worked for 28 years in industry and – to my knowledge – never met an economist. I therefore never learned their language. This has given me a serious problem in my newer roles working with government in that I haven’t yet met an economist I understand. Economists use strange words. They think big. They consider the flow of money around our planet. They consider what life would be like in 100 years. They scare me!

The second is a real admission. Although I am a chemist, I am an organic polymer chemist. This means I never bothered much to go beyond the first 2 lines of the Periodic Table and regard the catalytic properties of some metals as little short of magic.

The subject of this document is, however, what economists do, and we would do well to make the extra effort to understand them. This is about how we use the Earth’s resources – by which we mostly mean metals.

In my lifetime, we have used more of the Earth’s resources than we have in the rest of our history – and we are not slowing down. This document sets out to make us think about how to address this situation.

As I see it, the problem comes in the form of 3 questions.

The first question is “is there enough of the particular resource to satisfy the needs of our civilisation?” This is “supply and demand” (literally) on the global scale. It is extraordinarily difficult to work out how much of a particular element exist in our planet. It is in the realm of “earth scientists” to work this out. They tend to talk about how much is in the lithosphere, which is what they call the earth’s crust. We have some elements in abundance, but others are rarer. This is not the whole question though. The other half of the question is “how much do we use?” This is also surprisingly difficult to work out. Copper is a good example, and the work of Tom Graedel and co-workers is cited in this document. They have worked out how much copper is contained in the supply chain. We have copper in pipes, wires, electrical circuits and all manner of things we take for granted. Tom has worked out that in America, every person uses about 170 kg of copper to support his/her lifestyle. The equivalent amount for China is currently 35 kg. If everyone in China had the same lifestyle as the average American, we would need 1.7 billion tonnes to meet the demand. This is more than the “earth scientists” think we have by about 10%.

The second question is ”what does it cost to get it out of the ground?” Metals exist mostly as ores or in complex mixtures with other metals. Extracting them costs energy and (especially for ores which are reduced with carbon) produces lots of carbon dioxide. If you look you will note that Rhodium produces 6 million times more carbon dioxide than Iron in its production. I would have given up using it, but since it costs 10 times more than Gold and I don’t think I use any, this would not achieve much! Many of these rarer metals are vital components in modern electronics or alloys. As we use more, we have to balance out the cost of production with the value in use. This is a case where the economists’ long-term vision is needed. There is an interesting tale in the document about Ruthenium. About a decade ago, some producers decided they could sell more, so invested in research into new uses of Ruthenium. A couple of years ago, these new uses came on-stream and the demand – and hence the price – rocketed. We now have the problem that these new applications are more expensive than anticipated – and that we have dispersed Ruthenium all over the place in little amounts that are difficult to recover.

The third question we need to ask is the most difficult. It is the question of “whether the particular element is the best one for the job”. That story about Ruthenium gives us a clue. If you go looking for new uses for almost any material you will find complacent sitting tenants and you can take their market. This is where people need the imagination to look for the new materials that satisfy the needs of the application – not simply use what everyone else has used before, but look for new materials. People have done this for ages, but the twist now is that they need to bear in mind the environmental cost of their selection. This is where building design into the front end of product development is key. Work out what you are trying to achieve and ask whether the mechanical, chemical and other functional properties are the ones needed. Ask whether they change over time. And then ask for the full lifetime cost of the materials you are considering. How much does it really cost to produce – and eventually dispose of – them – and will it change as we understand and use the environmental cost to make choices?

So, what should you do? You should look at this document. Not as a good read, but as a source of (scary) facts. One of the things than makes decisions in this area difficult is ignorance. If you don’t know the facts, you can’t have any meaningful input to the discussion. Once you’ve read it, you can then ask questions. There are people here this evening whose job it is to look after national and global interests. Ask them!!

I have one other piece of advice – learn to speak economist!”

Materials UK Sustainability
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