Good news: here’s why we won’t run out of minerals (including oil)

Reposted from Fabius Maximus Website

Larry Kummer, Editor Good News, Oil & Energy, Science & Nature

Summary:  Among the fear barrages of the past 50 years, “running out of resources” has been the most persistent. Here is why we won’t run out of minerals. As for other kinds of resources, that is a more complex story for another day. I first ran this excerpt in January 2011.

Eating the World

The history of America since WWII has been a succession fear barrages rained on us by the Left, the Right, and the government. Many of these were sold to the public despite their contradiction by science. Today we have the doomster narratives of climate change, exaggerations of the findings of the IPCC. People casually talk about our certain doom from the weather, just as ten years ago people talked about civilization’s certain collapse when the “oil ran out.” Since these fears are clearer in retrospect, let’s see why peak oil was clearly bogus.

Why we don’t “run out” of minerals

The short version, the key fact about mineral resources:  there is an inverse relationship between the quantity and the quality of reserves. Low quality deposits are more common than high quality.  That is just common sense. Also common sense is that the march of technology lowers the cost of extracting and refining deposits. These two competing factors determine the price-supply curve for every mineral.

The first factor, geology, pushes up the the cost (capital expenditures plus operations) of extracting a marginal barrel of new oil.  The first wells in the great Texas and Saudi fields could be tapped almost by sticking a straw into the ground. Slowly wells went deeper, then to offshore, then to deep offshore — such as the fantastically deep and geologically complex wells that were seen as Brazil’s future (with oil over $100/barrel). High quality light oil was tapped, then heavy and sulfur-rich oils requiring extensive refining. Eventually we tapped bitumen (aka oil sands), than can be processed into petroleum products. Eventually we might tap deposits that are only somewhat like oil, such as kerogen (aka oil shale) or converting coal to oil.

Once we have explored the world for a mineral resource, rising prices drives this evolution to lower quality deposits. The high quality deposits become insufficient to meet growing demand, so prices rise to economically justify tapping lower quality deposits.

Technology, the second factor, reduces the cost of extracting a marginal barrel of new oil.

The constant tug-of-war between these two complex factors — plus swings of capital investment, supply, and demand — make reliable predictions of commodity prices impossible over all but the shortest time horizons. All this has been known since the 1970s, as shown in this classic text about mining by the famous Ronald Prain.

Read this and it will change forever how you read about commodities, and especially stories about our certain doom from limited mineral resources. Images and red emphasis added.

Copper the anatomy of an industry
Sir Ronald Prain (1975).
Excerpt from chapter ten: The Future.

Meditating on the nature of time in the first of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot wrote:

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”

If this be so, it should not be too difficult to give some preview of the next 25 years as they will affect the copper industry and certainly it is possible to outline some of the factors which will be of importance between now and the end of the century, for so many of them have their origins in the past.

However, whilst encouraged by Eliot, I am cautioned against trying to peer too far by his distinguished contemporary, the philosopher-poet Santayana who reminds us that:

“Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights our pathway but one step ahead.”

…Future copper supply will obviously depend on the volume of the world’s physical resources of the metal and man’s ability to exploit these resources, both technically and economically.

Deposits.

It has become abundantly clear over the past few years that the march of material progress which began with the Industrial Revolution cannot continue at its present rate unless the world’s reserves of minerals, fuel and food are similarly expanded. Nor, incidentally, can the damaging changes to the landscape and the pollution of air and water, which have followed in the wake, be allowed to continue if the human race is not to destroy all natural beauty and ultimately poison itself.

In regard to minerals, few matters have generated more controversy than the various attempts which have been made to quantify the resources, both in the earth and beneath the sea, which will be available for exploitation by future generations. This is a field in which neither computers nor the best human brains — nor a combination of both — can be relied upon to come up with the right answer. One has only to consider some of the forecasts which have been made over the past 50 years or so to see how totally wrong such predictions can be.

In 1931, for example, Professor C. K. Leith, of the University of Wisconsin, and later an adviser to the United States Government in the Second World War, wrote that “the best and most available of the world’s minerals …are being rapidly depleted, and yet more than 40 years later the world’s known resources are very much greater than they were then.

In 1952 the Materials Policy Commission of the United States President — popularly known as the Paley Commission, after its chairman — produced a very pessimistic report in which  it foresaw the end of certain metal supplies within a generation.

More recently a great deal of world attention has been attracted to a report by that group of international scientists, savants and industrialists known as the Club of Rome, which throws much gloom on the prospects of the world being able to continue its present growth rate because of the exhaustibility of resources. In the case of copper the report indicates that on the basis of known reserves and current usage, supplies of new material will dry up in 36 years and will last 21 years at the present rate of growth; even if reserves were five times as great as they are now known to be, supplies would run out in 50 years.

{Ed.note: The above paragraph does not accurately represent the conclusions of the Club of Rome (see Limits to Growth).}

This, and so many other prophesies of doom about the exhaustion of mineral resources, appear to be based on the mistaken assumption that ore reserves are somehow fixed by geology. These “fixed” tonnages are calculated, then divided by current demand, suitably adjusted by a growth factor, and the answer is expressed as so many years to Doomsday.

But tonnages of ore reserves of copper and other metals are not fixed in this way. They are not static. …Ore reserves are dynamic, and their quantum depends on a number of factors which are themselves subject to constant change. These factors include the intensity of exploration and the discovery rate of new orebodies; the effect of price, which at certain levels can increase reserves dramatically; the price/cost relationship; and future technology. …

Hot dollar

Costs and sale prices.

The second factor mentioned among those which determine future ore reserves is price and the price/cost relationship. As already indicated, higher costs and higher prices seem inevitable over the years to come and the relationship between these two increases will have an enormous influence on future reserves, as resources for growth are a function more of economic than geological factors in the period which we are discussing.

The higher the price at any given cost, or at any given technology, the more “mineral resources” will become “economic ore”. It has been said that if the copper price should double and provided that costs remain relatively stable, the copper reserves of the world might increase five-fold. …

Technology

Technology.

And now to technology, the third of the 3 keys which can unlock the doors to the world’s treasure chest of mineral resources.

To state categorically that suitable technology will be available to meet every stage of future market development would be as foolhardy as joining the prophets of doom and declaring that mankind will not survive the next 50 or 100 years because in that time the world’s resources will be exhausted. Just because technology has been found to surmount the obstacles of the past does not necessarily mean that it will continue to do so. However, the chances seem to be set fair …it is frequently observed that the sum of human knowledge is doubling every 10 years and that 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today. So even if the world is indeed facing its biggest problem of resources since civilization began, it is far better equipped than ever it was to find a solution.

In the world of copper, new technology will certainly be needed if the expected demands of developing society are to be met. …We may have to accept that the advances in technology required to bring this about will not be spectacular. They will not be achieved “at a stroke”; rather will these solutions be the product of the combined efforts of many people working in many different fields. The big “break-through” when it comes will be the sum of whatever human knowledge is available at that time and the ingenuity of those who apply it. And when it comes it may not be immediately recognized; its effects are far more likely to be gradual than dramatic. …

The ultimate constraint in the future production of copper is, strictly speaking, outside the control of the industry, but it is a matter which is of vital concern to us all the availability and cost of future supplies of energy. …

Copper’s requirement of future energy supplies will have to be bigger than it is today if expected demand is to be met – and if, as I believe, its high rate of production will depend on the mining of ever-increasing tonnages of ore of ever-decreasing grade.

Here again, there is an element of “exponential growth”, for not only will more energy be needed because greater tonnages have to be mined, but proportionately more energy will be required in some of the metallurgical processes. For example, low grades of ore may contain copper in more minute particles than higher grade ores, and the grinding process to liberate these particles demands more and more energy per ton of ore as the grade decreases, and of course even more in terms of per ton of metal. (The alternative, if energy is scarce or too costly, is of course to sacrifice some recovery by maintaining a coarse grind.) Moreover, these crushing and grinding processes are of necessity performed in the same locality as the mining operations. In aluminium production, electric power is mainly required at the refining stage and the alumina can usually be transported to wherever power is chap and readily available.

By contrast, the major power requirement in copper production is for grinding the ore and thus the power must be brought to the mine. The whole question of power utilization in every phase of copper production is under constant examination for even if availability could be assured, the cost element is certain to increase.

These and other constraints tend to suggest that the Club of Rome might be right after all in concluding that there must be limits to the growth of mineral supplies. In the case of copper, they could well be right – but not for the reasons which they advanced in their report. In my view, if there are to be limits to growth they will be imposed not by a disappearance of physical resources, but because it may become uneconomic to develop these resources, and because there could be an ultimate constraint in the form of availability, cost and input of energy. …

Summary.

To sum up the question of future resources, I do not think that the world is in any danger for many years ahead of running out of copper reserves. The technology of production will change and the price will change, but in terms of availability there should be no limit to growth in the foreseeable future.

The three chief factors which will guarantee the availability of copper are, as I have mentioned, continued and intensified exploration with new scientific aids; new technology; and the maintenance of economic incentives to convert mineral resources into economic ore.  …

We have come a long way since man mined and smelted copper under the shadow of the towering hills of Timna. Many times he has stood at the crossroads and wondered what the future held for him and his endeavours. The way ahead has never been crystal-clear. The brightest day must fade to twilight; in twilight all things lose their colour but not their shape, and within the general shape of the present world-wide industry, which has been build up piece by piece over six thousand years, the future will evolve with new colour, new brilliance and new rewards.

————————————–

Ronald Lindsay PrainSir Ronald Lindsay Prain by Elliott & Fry (1952). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Prain then discusses other important fractures, such as environmental impacts of mining and and the role of geopolitics. This book is valuable reading for anyone interested in humanity’s ability to extract the mineral resources needed to maintain civilization. Much of it is lost knowledge.

About the author

Sir Ronald Lindsay Prain (1907-1991) was known in the popular press as ‘Mr Copper’. Prain joined the board of Anglo Metal in 1936, and in 1937 joined the boards of the Rhodesian Selection Trust and Roan Antelope. These companies led the development of the African copper mining industry.  (Source here.)

81 thoughts on “Good news: here’s why we won’t run out of minerals (including oil)

  1. Reading that headline before my 1st coffee, it looked like:

    “Good news: here’s why we won’t run out of millennials”

    YIKES! 🙂

    • That reminds me of a scene from Little Big Man.

      Old Lodge Skins : Because there is no other way to deal with the White Man, my son. Whatever else you can say about them, it must be admitted: you cannot get rid of them.

      Jack Crabb : No, I suppose not, grandfather.

      Old Lodge Skins : There is an endless supply of White Man.

  2. Not to forget, although most people are negligent of, the resources in space. Solar power on Earth is one thing; solar power in space, where you can put up solar panels by the square mile, is another completely. Likewise, most of our mineral requirements for the next century could be met by one good sized asteroid. As the author says, when the resources are required, the answer will be found.

    • The solar panels in space scheme apparently does not work conceptually even assuming zero cost to put the material into orbit.

      Kirk Sorensen did a feasibility study for a space solar microwave convert to electricity on the earth power scheme and found even assuming an extreme energy shortage on earth and zero cost to put the necessary material into orbit that scheme does not work.

      The solar panels in space, microwaves, converted to electricity on the earth scheme is just too inefficient and requires too much material in space and on the earth.

      See minute 12:00 in this video.

      Comment: This is a 2-hour video of a presentation Kirk made in Calgary which is a summary of Kirk’s findings and technical experiences. Very interesting.

      Kirk is the NASA engineer who rediscovered the liquid fuel reactor that is six times more fuel efficient, no catastrophic failure modes, and so on that a pressure water reactor that was built and tested 50 years ago. Kirk after discovering liquid fuel reactor design went back to university and got a PhD in Nuclear engineering.

      Kirk Sorensen @ PROTOSPACE on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors

      • William,

        I’m inclined to believe that’s true about orbital solar power stations, at least over any relevant time horizon. But I understand the dreams, too.

        My favorite science fiction story about solar power is Larry Niven’s “The Return of William Proxmire.” He hates enthusiasts advocating for space travel – wanting to spend all that money that could otherwise go to cheese price support programs! He decides this results from all those great stories by Robert Heinlein. He has access to a time machine (why not?) and goes back to past and cures Ensign Heinlein of his TB. So has remains in the Navy instead of being invalided out. He returns to the future and finds the result isn’t what he expected.

        “The sun had set but the sky wasn’t exactly black. In a line across the full moon, four rectangles blazed like windows into the sun. …

        {The scientist explains} “(Those are) solar power satellites Looking Glass 3 through 6. …This isn’t just a better world, it’s a safe one. Admiral Heinlein doesn’t let the Soviets build spacecraft. …But he’s taking six of their people on the Mars Expedition. They’re paying their share of the cost in fusion bombs for propulsion.”

        Leadership isn’t everything, but it is almost everything.

      • While powering Earth based society with solar panels in space is a prototypical bad idea, powering orbital based refining capabilities for captured space bodies with solar power may be feasible if the price of the refined minerals is high enough. The same could be said for missions to collect methane from Jupiter’s moons – but the price of fuel would have to be astronomical indeed for that to be efficient – or someone is going to have to invent really efficient space flight technologies. (Millennium Falcons for everyone…)

    • Paul,

      “As the author says, when the resources are required, the answer will be found.”

      While true in a historian’s perspective, that does not mean that answers will be found when we need them like next day delivery from Amazon. We need to work at these challenges, least there be painful gaps between the problem’s arrival and when we get a solution.

      “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean will be flat again.”
      — Keynes in “A tract on monetary reform” (1923).

      • The record of people who guess what will happen in the future is pretty bad, so I take all predictions as wild guesses.

        It is true that many people have predicted resource shortages in the past that never happened.

        That doesn’t mean they can’t happen in the future.

        Perhaps by government fiat (such as anti-coal, or anti-gasoline).

        Or some resource could become so expensive that many people could not afford it, yet a government environmental agency might shut down exploration for more.

        For some people, a price they could not afford would be almost the same as running out of a resource.

      • Larry,
        On the other hand, diverting resources to solve problems we think we will have in the future could very well be not only a complete waste, but could actually delay the real solutions from being developed. Imagine if the automobile had been delayed because the leaders of the time were too busy trying to figure out how to get rid of all the horse manure and urine from the big cities. They never realized the problem was the horses, not their waste.

  3. When prices get a bit higher, most of the more-recent garbage dumps will become viable mines. We’re already on the verge of being able to extract gold from buried garbage at a reasonable profit.

    • I visited a Trash to Electricity plant a few years ago. Amazing the amount of metals that are easily separated from the ash stream. Copper, Aluminum, Gold, and the some steel not caught with the magnets before burning. Manager indicated that the recovered metals helped their profit margin.

    • Chad,

      “When prices get a bit higher, most of the more-recent garbage dumps will become viable mines. ”

      I’d like to see a study about that. Most municipal recycling programs are becoming less viable, not more – as they rely on cheap labor willing to do dangerous work. My guess is that prices would have to rise a lot to make that viable – or we’d need radical new tech.

      “We’re already on the verge of being able to extract gold from buried garbage at a reasonable profit.”

      I’d like to see a citation for that. Gold can be extracted from e-waste, but that’s pretty much the opposite of “buried garbage.”

  4. Anyone that believes run out of carbon-based energy forms has never taken Organic Chemistry 101. Fossil Fuels are simply the CHEAPEST forms of carbon-based fuels. Almost everything you use that was once grown can be turned into a carbon-based fuel. Algae can be turned into a fuel, wood can be turned into a fuel, most garbage can be turned into a fuel, grass clipping can be turned into a fuel, fossil fuels are nothing more than a hydrocarbon of a certain length. It is easy and relatively inexpensive to take one Carbon molecule and chain it to others to the desired length. The fact that people think wind and solar will ever truly be cheaper than carbon-based fuels simply proves they are completely ignorant of science. Had we spend the wind and solar money on developing real alternatives we would most likely have already solved the energy problem.

    The Promise
    https://youtu.be/ID_dKBCRLsA

    Lack of funding and support
    https://youtu.be/eYz86Z266-I

      • Yes, KiOR did go bankrupt…that was the point. We funded wind and solar instead of real viable alternatives. We funded Solyndra and ignored KiOR and others. The Fischer-Tropsche reaction is just another example of the real solutions that exist.

    • KiOr messed up big time. They bit off more than they could chew.
      However there is another company called Ensyn which while small has had a much smarter development path. Their fast pyrolysis process also looks like a cat cracker in it’s flow configuration, but uses catalytically inactive sand.
      The Bio-Oil so produced can be used in industrial boilers, but is unsuitable for transportation fuels.
      Ensyn has teamed up with UOP (a major petroleum industry licensor) to help commercialize further processing to convert Bio-Oil for such use.
      They’ve had some success i believe, teaming up with existing refiners to process Bio-Oil at up to 5% in FCCU (cat cracker ) feed

      Ensyn site is here
      http://www.ensyn.com/

      JV with UOP
      https://www.envergenttech.com/

      What are the properties of RTP green fuel?
      A: RTP green fuel is a brown, pourable liquid with a smoky aroma. It has low volatility and is an aqueous polar liquid. It has a high oxygen and water content, which improves viscosity but decreases the heating value relative to fossil fuels. It also has a low pH as a result of the organic acids present. An ASTM specification has been developed for RTP green fuel for use in industrial burners. The fuel is in compliance with ASTM spec D7544.
      Snip
      What is RTP green fuel?
      A: RTP green fuel is the liquid product of fast pyrolysis. It is a water-soluble, oxygenated fuel consisting of ‘depolymerized’ components of biomass. It is essentially carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, with low levels of nitrogen and negligible levels of sulfur. RTP green fuel contains almost no sulfur and is virtually carbon-neutral. It can be easily adapted for use in a wide variety of industries including pulp and paper, refining and petrochemicals, electrical generation and most energy-intensive heavy industries.
      The major organic components of RTP green fuel are a liquid lignin derivative, alcohols, natural organic acids and carbonyls.
      Snip
      What are the attributes of the transportation fuel Envergent is developing? Is this another way of making ethanol and biodiesel?
      A: The transportation fuel that we will offer is not ethanol or biodiesel. Envergent is developing two pathways to renewable transportation fuels. One using existing refinery infrastructure to coprocess RTP green fuel. The second is upgrading of RTP green fuel directly to transportation fuels. The green transportation fuels produced by upgrading will be fungible with their fossil counterparts. These fuels will be known as green gasoline, green diesel and green jet fuel. They will be molecularly identical to their fossil counterparts, whereas ethanol and biodiesel are not molecularly identical to gasoline or diesel. Being molecularly identical allows them to fit seamlessly into the existing refining and distribution infrastructure; they are fungible, avoiding any mixing and separation issues.
      https://www.envergenttech.com/technology/frequently-asked-questions/

    • CO2isLife
      Here’s a presentation from 2007 by John Hofmeister, then President of Shell.
      There are a lot of interesting items to parse, some quite revealing comments and some heavy spin (I say that as an old/former Petroleum downstreamer who is not unfriendly to the industry)
      One item of interest is than Shell abandoned silicon based solar (for thin film) because of EROI. They thought EROI for silicon based was less than one, and would not be commercial without subsidies
      Comments on solar start just before 14min
      http://connectedsocialmedia.com/3450/view-from-the-top-shell-oil-president-john-hofmeister/

      • Brent, thanks. Here is Shell’s Pearl Plant. It is I believe the largest GTL refinery out there. This process can be used to turn gasified garbage into fuel. Currently, it uses Nat Gas to form fuels simply because Nat Gas is a waste product over there, but any carbon material that can be burned can be gasified into syngas and recombined into longer-chain fuels.

        PEARL GTL
        Developed in partnership with Qatar Petroleum, Pearl Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) is the world’s largest GTL plant and one of the world’s largest, most complex and challenging energy projects ever commissioned. From the origins of Shell GTL technology nearly 40 years ago, to its first commercial debut in Shell’s Bintulu GTL plant in Malaysia in the early 1990s, to the creation of the world’s GTL capital in Qatar today – the delivery of GTL on such a vast scale as Pearl GTL brought together almost every aspect of Shell’s technical and project management capabilities.
        https://www.shell.com.qa/en_qa/projects-and-sites/pearl-gtl.html

  5. EROEI cannot be ignored because at some point in a not so distant NON-NUCLEAR future, accessible petroleum will be unable to supply the energy necessary to ‘unlock/unearth/deliver’ even a slight surplus of said petroleum. The path to that not so distant time is paved with involuntary austerity and some brutal wars, even massive depopulations. Add a sprinkle of willful destruction of resources, such as Saddam’s firing of the wells of Kuwait.

    Solar energy in orbit is handing the fate of the world to a single corporation that could be destroyed with a single battery of missiles, and countries ‘shuttered’ by this entity into the stone age. The end of sovereignty.

    Solar and wind power (S\ skimmed off the top of the bountiful surplus used for grid electricity /S) used in any way to assist in extracting difficult sources of petroleum, should be laughed out of the room today. Because your children’s children will not be laughing.

    • Hocus Locus,

      “accessible petroleum will be unable to supply the energy necessary to ‘unlock/unearth/deliver’ even a slight surplus of said petroleum. ”

      That’s a bold guess, like most statements by the peak oilers. But in the real world, advances in technology have improved the cost-effectiveness of mineral extraction and refining, allowing use of lower grades of petroleum deposits. This is a centuries-long trend.

      Your belief that this will stop is …interesting, esp as a new industrial revolution appears to be starting.

      • Advances in technology do not always result in an result in more available energy to do things. And especially not when you factor in energy cost of manufacture of something that presently does not exist, like solar panels to cover the world. There is a wall and when you hit it you’ll go splat. And the wall might not even be an “end to human innovation”, it might be something dull like a war started over oil that kills the humans who are supposed to do the imagining.

        So the opposite of ‘peak oilers’ are ‘infinite oilers’? I’d like to order one to lubricate my pumps please.

        • “Advances in technology do not always result in more availableenergy to do things.” True enough in many ways! However, one prime example to contradict this statement is the boom in fracking! Fracking was first undertaken in Texas in 1945. The UK has been “fracking” in the North Sea for nigh-on 50 years! The only real new technology in fracking is horizontal drilling, which is fantastic. Just like DDT & other great inventions, none of the negative claims about the practice have proven true!

  6. Many of the doomsday proclamations are intended as a means of seizing power to replenish a commodity that global elitists are constantly looking for, cheap labor.

  7. I have no worries about resource depletion except one. Helium is the one resource a person might worry a bit about, because in so many of its uses it is expelled to the atmosphere and is not recoverable; and there is no substitute. Helium is unique. The question is: Is helium rare, or are there many unrecognized resources within the crust? What is the source of the helium deposits we know of? Does it have a long residence time in gas deposits? Is is just a by product of alpha decay that ends up in natural gas fields, or are some deposits from primordial gas from the mantle?

    There is currently a shortage of helium as Exxon’s Shutte Creek facility in Wyoming has maintenance scheduled this summer and the long time storage facility near Amarillo is being phased out. Our prices have just about doubled recently. I understand that new resources will soon come on line in the Middle East and central Asia, but I think most people are surprised at how demand has grown so quickly.

    • Kevin,

      Prain does not say that we should not worry about resource depletion. He is not a cornucopian. Only continued tech progress will prevent rising prices, as we tap ever lower quality deposits (i.e., more difficult to extract and refine).

      Helium might be the first “mineral” to hit the point at which prices rise at an accelerating rate – due to its unique properties. That is odd in a sense, as it is the second most abundant element in the solar system (from memory).

      As mentioned elsewhere in these comments, the economics of mining will change when we economically tap resources elsewhere in the solar system. We can only guess when that will be.

    • Helium is created in the earths crust by the constant decay of radioactive elements. Some helium is constantly being released into the atmosphere by volcanos. So there is always some in the atmosphere that can be extracted by liquifying air. In some applications liquid hydrogen and liquid Neon can also be used as substitutes. for supper conducting applications helium and hydrogen can both be used since the have the lowest boiling point temperature. For high temperature supper conductors other gases can be used. If you don’t need the cold temperatures them it might be the inert property of helium you want, But helium isn’t the only inert gas. About the only application that is stuck with using helium is lighter than air aircraft (blimps) But today there are very few blimps bing used commercially.

      • Steven,

        “So there is always some in the atmosphere that can be extracted by liquifying air..”

        Interesting to note the frequency with which wildly expensive methods of obtaining minerals are casually mentioned in these comments, as if cost doesn’t matter. It does. I’ve not seen estimates for extracting Helium from air, but the usual number given is 10 thousands higher than today’s market price.

        “for supper conducting applications helium and hydrogen can both be used since the have the lowest boiling point temperature.”

        From what I’ve read, that is wrong. The current generation of commercial superconducting magnets must be cooled to 4K. Helium is a liquid at that temperature. Hydrogen freezes at 14K (perhaps higher at the pressure used in MRIs and such).

      • Lighter than air craft can use hydrogen. In one of my NSF projects I have young students involved and will not use hydrogen, but there research groups who use it safely, and it costs maybe one-fourth as much per lifted mass.

        With regard to superconductor applications, critical values of temperature, magnetic field, and current determine which superconductor material may be used. I am pretty certain TiNb is still the workhorse for high current and it requires helium.

        Neon is very expensive compared to helium as it is produced from air. Any gas that has a small fraction in air is going to be energy intensive to produce. Helium must have one of the smallest fractions in air.

        Helium is an ideal carrier gas for chromatography, but nitrogen and hydrogen can be substituted in some applications. Heat transfer characteristics are important in some applications of helium.

        I don’t know that I have seen an exhaustive list of the uses of helium, but the variety will probably surprise the average person, and for each use there are reasons helium was chosen.

      • We currently obtain helium from natural gas wells, most of them in Kansas and northern Texas. The mobility of helium is ideal for it to percolate through rock strata in the same manner as natural gas. Economical recovery requires >= 0.3% He concentration, but some of the US wells have up to 1.8%. That would indicate the presence of an unusually large concentration of uranium or thorium present at greater depth than the natural gas fields. Even bigger concentrations have recently been found in geothermal pools in the Tanzania Rift. The gas bubbling from these pools contains no hydrocarbons, just nitrogen and helium, with helium at 10% concentration.

        Helium is perhaps the only resource that is both an element, and something produced constantly by the earth. It will literally never “run out” because uranium and thorium (which produce it as alpha radiation) have half lives so long that the sun will cease to exist long before they fully decay. It may fall to concentrations too small to economically recover, but it will never run out.

        • What is the difference between running out, and resources too dilute to recover economically?

  8. Not to mention that most copper will wind up being recycled forever, which represents a lot less energy input to just turn old copper into a new useful product. If it has value, it will most likely be retained in some form or another. Most retired automobiles etc, are recycled, as are any other product of value. All we need is limitless energy, and the Universe is full of limitless energy.

    • Earthling,

      Re: recycling

      That’s an important point, reminding us the Prain gives us just a first cut version of the complex resource supply and demand dynamics.

      The cost of recycling depends on many factors, varying widely between substances. It’s concentration, cost of extraction and refining, etc. Much recycling requires cheap workers willing to tolerate dangerous conditions. Over time increasing prosperity will reduce that pool (hopefully). We will need new tech (robots!) to continue – let alone expand – current recycling programs.

    • Correct, but moreover, as long as protons and electrons (just to keep a neutral charge) exist, and given energy, we can construct whatever elements are needed, and combine those elements into whatever resource is desired.

      In the long-term, it is not inconceivable that we one day do that. I need more gold for these connections. Can you pass me the lead?

      • jtpom,

        Or we might invest magic and wish resources into existence. While fun, these wild guesses about the distant future don’t help us make good decisions today – which is the subject of this post.

        • If you bothered to read the last sentence of the post I was responding to, it said all we needed was limitless energy, which the universe had.
          Conversion of one element into another is possible today. The only reason no one is converting lead into gold is the energy cost to do it. If we had access to limitless energy, there would be no debate about limited resources.
          So please don’t lecture me on the purpose of this post.

    • It is not noted clearly here but plastics have replaced a lot of copper uses such as home plumbing. Aluminum can also be used for many applications. Materials technology is continually finding replacements as materials become scarce and too expensive for some applications. Often they are even superior in performance.

  9. William Cowper’s poem should be recommended reading for all ecological catastrophists

    “….Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sov’reign will.

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.”

    (BTW, re copper; after extraction and use, is it lost from man’s reach forever?)

    • (BTW, re copper; after extraction and use, is it lost from man’s reach forever?)

      No, Cu is used obviously, and doesn’t “rust” like Fe, but it is always available for recycling.
      He, on the other hand, does move up and diffuse into space once it is used.

  10. Will an Estonian company be first to commercialize production from US Oil Shale?

    With stable long-term operating costs, high energy efficiency, massive resource size and low geologic risk, oil shale production compares favorably to the production of conventional oil, making it an important resource to provide energy security for Utah. It’s also noteworthy that modern surface oil shale production creates 10 times more energy than is used to produce it.

    Energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from an energy source to the amount of energy expended to obtain that source. Modern surface oil shale production is comparable to some sources of conventional petroleum production, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy, oil from oil shale results in 10 times more energy that is needed to produce it.
    Source: U.S. Department of Energy

    Ethanol EROI less than 1
    Alberta Oilsands (Surface) 5
    Coal To Liquids 6
    Kerogen US Oil Shale (Surface) !0+
    Conventional Petroleum 10.5
    http://enefitutah.com/benefits/an-efficient-low-cost-resource/

    http://enefitutah.com/

    http://enefitutah.com/project/safe-reliable-fuel-for-utah/

    Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration Approval of Massive Utah Oil Shale Development
    Water-sucking Project Threatens Endangered Species, Climate, Air Quality
    https://www.nrdc.org/media/2019/190516

    • Brent,

      “Will an Estonian company be first to commercialize production from US Oil Shale?”

      I suggest skepticism. There have been glowing press releases since the 1980s, claiming fantastic low production costs – yet there are still only demonstration-stage plants in operation. It is unclear if extracting and refining kerogen (aka “oil shale”) is more cost-effective than coal liquefaction (a far more mature technology).

      A common ploy in the press releases is to boast about operating costs – dollars per output unit to run the mining and refining facilities – and ignore the capital costs (cost to build the facilities, spread across the output units). Since most unconventional liquid fuels have far higher capital costs than today’s average for conventional oil, that makes kerogen look awesome. But the CFO’s who sign the billion dollar checks to build these projects are not fooled as easily as clickbait-hungry journalists.

      • Hi Larry,
        A little different perspective. The reason this company is talking in the way they are about operating costs, is that this a HC production scheme like the oilsands. After the facilities are built there is constant production for the life of the facility (in theory). Therefore it is unlike conventional petroleum production because production doesn’t rise to a peak then decline.
        Oilsands and Kerogen (if this ever were built) have a very different production profile than conventional. And the ability to operate in the long term with predictable operating costs is important
        There are no exploration costs either.
        Yes, there are substantial capital costs upfront, There are also huge capital costs for deepwater development upfront and that’s after after exploration costs to make the discovery in the first place.
        I’m a Canuck, and an old/former Petroleum Downstreamer, a Supply and Refining guy. For most of my time in the industry I was heavily involved in downstream optimization modeling.
        Despite best intentions, there can be poor execution for projects, even for technologies that should be fairly well established.
        There are also strong records of continuous improvements in processes and operations over time. A good example of this would be changes in operations in the oilsands over time across multiple disciplines. But this doesn’t mean problems don’t still occur. They do.
        If I look at what is proposed here, mining is a well established industry. Retorting has probably not had as much commercial experience (especially at large scale) as some other technologies; however I wouldn’t consider it inherently more technically challenging than Gasification, which is the front end of CTL. Gasification is a very demanding technology with severe operating conditions (there are different designs). Regarding processing of products from Retorting, I’ve pretty high confidence in the Chemical Process industry to be able to handle whatever is required.
        As an old/former refiner, I’m of course aware of project cost escalation concerns. Many examples for major projects costing more than originally projected.
        best regards
        brent

  11. Just to pile on: I think you’ve got to add some emphasis concerning changes in the future usage of the resource. Wrt copper, a primary usage was for telecommunications. Tons were used each year in the US for the construction of massive telecommunications cables (cables consisting of 3600 pairs of 26 ga conductors were a common size in metro areas). That dropped dramatically, virtually overnight, with the introduction of fiber optics. What is the primary material in the fabrication of fiber cables? silicon dioxide, or silica, basically sand, one of the most abundant resources on Earth. One fiber with the thickness of a human hair can replace more than ten, 3600-pair copper cables.

    It is seldom recognized that when direct-buried (i.e., not housed in conduit) telephone cables are replaced, they are virtually always abandoned by the owner (written off their taxes, abandoning all claim of ownership). This is not a rare situation. If the conductors in a cable become wet (think ‘flood’), if fiber is installed to upgrade service, or if they suffer damage (e.g., lightning strike where the cable comes above ground), the copper cable is likely abandoned. It is not costly to ‘mine’ these abandoned cables (you can make strategic cuts a couple of hundred feet apart, grab the conductors using a backhoe, and slide them out if the sheath, leaving the sheath in the ground). We have a lot of copper ‘stored’ for future salvaging.

    I suspect that a byproduct of technology improvements has been the reduction in the use of many strategic minerals.

    • LOL. I should know better than to post something without first checking the latest technology. A single fiber will now replace more than FORTY, 3600-pair copper cables.

    • Jtom,

      That’s an important point: the nature of mineral demand also changes over time. Petroleum replaces whale oil. Fiber replaces copper. But it is unpredictable – not something we can plan on helping us.

      “We have a lot of copper ‘stored’ for future salvaging.”

      We extract over 19 million tons of copper per year from mines. I doubt that buried copper wire will ever be more than a microscopic dot on that picture.

      • According to iscrapapp.com, USA recycled copper amounts to 25,000 Statues of Liberty each year. And copper and copper alloy scrap provides almost half of the copper consumed in the United States each year. In 2012, the U.S. scrap industry processed (exports plus domestic recycled) 2 million metric tonnes of copper.

        While buried copper wire may be a microscopic dot for copper recycling, it is clear that overall, recycled copper accounts for a big source of easily available and produced future copper requirements that will essentially be available forever. Recycled copper takes significant less energy than mined copper, saving about 40 million tons of essential life saving CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. Learn something new every day…

        https://iscrapapp.com/blog/scrap-metal-recycling-facts-figures/

      • The US has been laying copper phone cables for over seventy years. I’ve seen sixty year-old cables still in service. Copper used in telecom cables reached about 200,000 tonnes a year before the decline set in. That’s just the US. The BT in the UK claims to have 75 million miles of copper telecom cable. Add in France, Italy, Germany, etc, plus transoceanic cables linking every continent, and you will get a pretty big ‘microscopic dot’.

  12. So what? If/when resource depletion occurs we’ll either revert to what we did before we started using them, find and alternative, or reduce our population to being intelligent hunter gatherers. None of this will happen over night so there’s plenty of time to plan … or get use to the inevitable.

    • markl,

      “So what? ”

      Those alternatives look very painful. Perhaps we could instead try intelligently planning for the future. Such as encouraging investment in R&D for mining, refining, resource use, and recycling.

      With some support to ngos (eg, universities) and the business sector, the odds of the awful futures you describe probably can be avoided.

      “or get use to the inevitable.”

      History shows that great nations are made by people who reject your apathetic perspective.

  13. The article deals with the supply side. We also have to deal with the demand side. In that regard, Buckminster Fuller pointed out that we continue to do more and more with less and less.

    Between 1977 and 2001, the amount of material required to meet all needs of Americans fell from 1.18 trillion pounds to 1.08 trillion pounds, even though the country’s population increased by 55 million people. Al Gore similarly noted in 1999 that since 1949, while the economy tripled, the weight of goods produced did not change. link

    Yep, that Al Gore. 🙂

    • Commie Bob,

      That’s an important point (JTom made it upthread) about the changing demand for minerals.

      Thanks for that quote by Fuller, pointing to this quote by Al Gore. Lifelong Learning was a initiative of the Clinton administration. VP Gore sponsored a “Lifelong Learning Summit” on 12 January 1999. Here is the quote from his speech:

      “Throughout our economy, skills, intelligence, and creativity are replacing mass and money – which is why, in the past 50 years, the value of our economy has tripled, while the physical weight of our economy as a whole has barely increased at all.”

      https://clintonwhitehouse2.archives.gov/WH/EOP/OVP/speeches/lifelong.html

      I’ve added this to my post.

  14. I remember the switch from copper to aluminium cables for telecommunications some decades ago. Produced lots of unforeseen circumstances.

  15. We will never run out of mineral resources. Everything we might need is dissolved in the ocean, including uranium and gold. The trick is extracting what is needed (and disposing of what isn’t needed) at a cost that is affordable. As a Rule of Thumb, the more dilute the concentration of something is, the more energy it will take to concentrate it, even with improvements in efficiency.

    During my lifetime I have seen the transition from well-made, durable products (US and German) to things (Chinese) that older people often characterize as “trash” as a result of substituting cheaper materials for the original materials.

    As an example, for the many geologists that read this blog, there was a time when Leitz dominated the field of research-grade polarizing microscopes. They were the typical over-engineered German product, built like battleships. With re-lubrication every 20 or 30 years, they are as good as new. Nowadays, what you buy has cheaper plastic gears. After a decade, if the plastic gets brittle and a tooth breaks, you’ll be lucky to be able to buy a replacement gear. Often, you’ll end up having to replace it with a new (very expensive) model with fewer features and less durability than the original all-metal Leitz ‘scopes.

    Substitutions out of necessity means a price to be paid not only in dollars, but in functionality and durability.

    • A counter example is automobiles. When I was a pup, the points needed to be adjusted every few thousand miles. A tune-up wasn’t optional. If you didn’t do tune-ups, your car would stop running.

      The law is that cars must be able to run for a large number of miles without a tune-up.

      Of course the down side is that when they do break they are more expensive to fix. That said, I spend a lot less time working on cars than I did when I was younger.

  16. It seems that everybody who is moved to write about the resource “question” gets it completely wrong. Prain does it eloquently, but still makes the identical error of the Malthusians although he buys us more time. They all stick to the linear ‘logic’ and apriori reasoning (the kind a clever teenager with no life experience uses in arguments with his parents) of the petri dish-zero sum boundaries of the “problem” that has never manifested itself. Ive commented on this subject many times here, but here goes:

    1) we dont demand zinc. We demand noncorrossion for our barn roofs, culverts, and ductwork. We dont demand copper, we demand communication, conduction of electricity …. despite abundant zinc we have substituted hugely with alternative materials some only recently invented. Ditto copper.
    2) miniaturization- first computer was an apartment-sized A/C room. Today, a mightier might that fits in my shirt pocket.
    3) Recycling for millennia of particularly metals but more and more other commodities. A microgram of gold in your wedding ring came from the Gold Coast across the Sahara during the Medieval WP and similarly copper in a modern building hailing from the Bronze Age. All we have mined is still on the earth’s surface.
    4) Even so, resources are still very abundant. Global copper production in 2017 was 19.1 million MT with known resources at 2.1B MT, yet the USGS assessed copper to be discovered at 3.5billion tons. The rest of the metals are similarly abundant. And the sea: dissolved in water, vast fields of multi- metal cobalt nodules on the seafloor, 100s thousands of square miles of methane clathrates…

    To better understand why Malthus, Jevons, Prain, Club of Rome, Ehrlich get it so wrong, it should be understood that the Real Resources themselves are simply human ingenuity, but much more dynamic and multi-dimensional than is portrayed. Half the world’s largest airplane is made of composites and nonmetallic fibres that didnt exist until invented by man only within the past number of decades. It weighs over 700 tons. Given a world with different resources, we would have done it all differently. No need to worry. Those who know how to do do have got your back.

    • Gary,

      “Prain does it eloquently, but still makes the identical error of the Malthusians …”

      That is because you did not carefully read what he wrote.He is a geologist writing about producing copper and how that will change. He is not talking about uses of copper, and how that will change. That’s outside his field of expertise.

      “similarly copper in a modern building hailing from the Bronze Age.”

      Do you have a citation for that? The data I’ve seen shows that little of current copper use comes from recycling.

      “Even so, resources are still very abundant. ”

      OK, so you didn’t read it. At least read the summary.

      • Larry in ancient times, these metals were precious and would not be tossed away much like gold. Both metals can be easily worked and can be remelted and mixed with other metals. Link for ancient recycling (presently half of US copper used is recycled and the US is the worlds second largest copper producer with huge reserves ~1.6B tonnes)

        https://www.thebalancesmb.com/the-importance-of-copper-recycling-287793

        It’s certainly worth reading the whole thing.

        Ive been in the geology, mining and metallurgical business for 60 years (geologist and engineer) and what used to be fairly common knowledge seems to be being lost these days. I argued as a professional about the totally wrong-headed premise of the Club of Rome in 1972 when their “limits” book came out.

        Anyway, I don’t take issue with your main thesis and Prain is good as far as he goes, but my main criticism stands. Think about this to understand where I’m coming from: had we been delivered a planet with completely different proportions of metals and non metals, we could have built a modern civiluzation with it.

  17. Yes, scarcity of base metals like copper has been a running battle with economic illiteracy for generations and with more trials of the IQ test than Peak Oil. The interesting thing is that human behavior traps people on the demand side and supply side analysis into linear extrapolation of future prices and rates of return.

    On the demand side we’ve had episodic fears of running out of copper while on the supply side the trap for investors is in thinking their long term price assumption will hold up. Most of the armchair pundits on the demand side slink away after predicting shortages that never really materialize, like the hot and cold times of Peak Oil predictions. On the supply side it usually involves real money and real investors not factoring in other suppliers entering the market or lost market segments from technology and substitution.

    An example of the supply side risk to investors is playing out today in the lithium market with new capacity coming on line to the detriment of the other players and the new equilibrium price cut in half. It turns into a pulse gun hit to speculative investors in such situations and periods of retrenchment for existing producers. They tend to high grade their resource or at least cut back on capital spending during such lean times.

    Note that while the resource scarcity debate goes on in copper there is more new capacity sitting ready to go in Arizona and held up by regulators and environmental groups and tribes than the debaters understand-by a lot. Scarcity in the U.S. and Canadian copper resources is self imposed.

    I could go on but I think most already understand the issues from watching the oil market forces over the years.

  18. At least two large deposits of copper in the United States of America are at the commercial development stage but held up by environmental concerns. I expect that this is the case in other countries as well.

  19. Something that some people are aware of- most of the interior of Africa has never been surveyed for minerals and metals. I’m almost willing to say the same is true of the Tibetan Plateau.

    And mining interests are just starting up in Mongolia. And because of Russia being Russia, no one really knows how much of Siberia has been explored for minerals.

  20. William Astley, thank you for submitting this video but I also hate you now… I figured that I could just watch the video from the beginning to level-set myself by the time I got to the 12 minute mark that you referenced. 3.5 hours later, I’m still not done with this captivating video and have tried to convince my family to sit and watch it with me. Totally awesome viiwing!!!

    • Ted,
      Based on your comment, I decided to look at the video. I too got seduced by the topic and the entertaining speaker. I had planned to just check it out, but ended up watching the whole thing!

  21. Cooper is good example. What is a resource is not a question of physical science. It is a question of what use human beings have for it, and at what price.

    A couple of cooper examples.

    40 years ago every aspiring gourmet chef had to have a set of cooper pots. They were expensive and finicky because they had to have a tin coating that could be easily damaged.

    Go into a kitchen supply store now and you will not see many copper pots. For almost all uses they have been replaced by multi alloy sandwiches and non-stick coatings.

    In that same time frame, the telecommunications system ran over copper wires. Now it runs over fiber optics and through the air.

  22. The world will never run out of copper or any other metal, for the simple we reason that we only mine <0.01% of world copper resources, the rest isnt at an economic grade to mine. But if demand increases, we mine rock only slightly less concentrated, and the amount available at slightly less concentration increasese exponentially by a rough factor of ~10 every time. So there is 10 times as much copper at 0.9% than 1.0% by grade, 10 times more at 0.8% than 0.9% and so on. Some mines are now mining at 10,000 years. Same goes for pretty much every other metal. Fossil fuels are different because they require organic component, and dont form in the earth’s crust, so there is much less of them, but still these get under-estimated. It is also generally much harder to get metal out of rock than oil out of rock, with some exceptions.

    The best way to understand it is the resource pyramid concept put out years ago, we only mine the very tip of the resource pyramid at the veruy highest grades, the bottom of the pyramid is inexhaustible.

    The entire earth’s crust contains copper, so also does the soil in your backyward, we just dont mine it because it isnt concentrated enough.

  23. https://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/Opinions_of_Previous_Writers
    The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines Author: William Stanley Jevons First Published: 1865

    “Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.

    With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities—of such miraculous powers. But it is at the same time impossible that men of foresight should not turn to compare with some anxiety the masses yearly drawn with the quantities known or supposed to lie within these islands.

    Geologists of eminence, acquainted with the contents of our strata, and accustomed, in the study of their great science, to look over long periods of time with judgment and enlightenment, were long ago painfully struck by the essentially limited nature of our main wealth. And though others have been found to reassure the public, roundly asserting that all anticipations of exhaustion are groundless and absurd, and “may be deferred for an indefinite period,” yet misgivings have constantly recurred to those really examining the question.”

  24. Reference

    NBER study 2013
    David S. Jacks

    https://www.nber.org/papers/w18874.pdf

    Abstract
    This paper considers the evidence on real commodity prices from 1900 to 2015 for 40 commodities,
    representing 8.72 trillion US dollars of production in 2011. In so doing, it suggests and documents
    a comprehensive typology of real commodity prices, comprising long-run trends, medium-run cycles,
    and short-run boom/bust episodes. The main findings can be summarized as follows: (1) real commodity
    prices have been on the rise—albeit modestly—from 1950; (2) there is a pattern—in both past and
    present—of commodity price cycles, entailing large and long-lived deviations from underlying trends;
    (3) these commodity price cycles are themselves punctuated by boom/bust episodes which are historically
    pervasive.

  25. The world goes from easy to use resources to harder to use resources and eventually goes into the low-quality field. That’s exemplified by the march from easy “stick a straw in the soil” oil to deeper, offshore, the Arctic, hard to process and then shale oil. But there is a march back towards more quality as well. Whats diesel or even gasoline – right, a blend of different hydrocarbon molecules in a certain melange that can be used for combustion. It’s a cocktail essentially and as any cocktail, its combustion is messy by nature. Whats Natural Gas or even more so LNG? Way more than 90% methane with very little in terms of nonhydrocarbon impurities. Its a uniform fuel at the molecular level often with 97% methane. Combustion is a lot easier to handle and a lot cleaner. And the rush for shale oil liberates vast amounts of shale gas – methane. Cheap and plentiful methane starts to eat into oils domain. Slowly, but inexorably.

    • I saw usage of natural gas cars in Shanghai. I own LPG – Propane converted car in Europe. Comfort of usage is practically same as with gasoline. With much less smell from exhaust. There is no need to go further than 1 (Methane), 3-4 (Propane, Butane) carbon atoms in molecule of fuel. It is clean enough.

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