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Are the world's industrial minerals threatened with extinction? (All things are finite after all


But now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though—that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away—or three, or six—and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.

Gallium, though—

Gallium’s atomic number is 31. It’s a blue-white metal first discovered in 1831, and has certain unusual properties, like a very low melting point and an unwillingness to oxidize, that make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors, a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in ultraviolet lamps. It’s also quite important in making the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen television sets and computer monitors.

As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use. Indium, another endangered element—number 49 in the periodic table—is similar to gallium in many ways, has many of the same uses (plus some others—it’s a gasoline additive, for example, and a component of the control rods used in nuclear reactors) and is being consumed much faster than we are finding it. Dr. Reller gives it about another decade. Hafnium, element 72, is in only slightly better shape. There aren’t any hafnium mines around; it lurks hidden in minute quantities in minerals that contain zirconium, from which it is extracted by a complicated process that would take me three or four pages to explain. We use a lot of it in computer chips and, like indium, in the control rods of nuclear reactors, but the problem is that we don’t have a lot of it. Dr. Reller thinks it’ll be gone somewhere around 2017. Even zinc, commonplace old zinc that is alloyed with copper to make brass, and which the United States used for ordinary one-cent coins when copper was in short supply in World War II, has a Reller extinction date of 2037. (How does a novel called The Death of Brass grab you?)

Zinc was never rare. We mine millions of tons a year of it. But the supply is finite and the demand is infinite, and that’s bad news. Even copper, as I noted above, is deemed to be at risk. We humans move to and fro upon the earth, gobbling up everything in sight, and some things aren’t replaceable.

Solutions will be needed, if we want to go on having things like television screens and solar panels and computer chips. Synthesizing the necessary elements, or finding workable substitutes for them, is one obvious idea. Recycling these vanishing elements from discarded equipment is another. We can always try to make our high-tech devices more efficient, at least so far as their need for these substances goes. And discovering better ways of separating the rare elements from the matrices in which they exist as bare traces would help—the furnace-flue solution. (Platinum, for example, always in short supply, constitutes 1.5 parts per million of urban dust and grime, which is ever-abundant.)

6 Comments in Response to

Comment by Die Daily
Entered on:

I notice that the article was so widely discredited, that someone has now updated it along the lines of my comment below. Just about any time you hear about scarcity, you should be thinking "artificial scarcity". Unless the resource in question is intelligent politicians, we are in no danger of running out of anything (exception: fissionable materials). The idea itself is a ruse, like that of the myth of overpopulation, which has come straight from the elite think tanks into the minds of those who are well-meaning but insufficiently educated in science and math. The goal being to get us to think some of us must die for the rest to survive. Madness. Unscientific madness, to boot.

Comment by Die Daily
Entered on:

Looked into this a little further. The main source of gallium is from aluminum and zinc smelting, with some production from scrubbing the exhaust from coal power plants and smelting the resulting soot. It would only be possible to run out of our ordinary main sources of gallium if we stopped smelting aluminum, smelting zinc and burning coal. So what's going on here? What am I missing?

Now, even if this happens, we still don't run out of gallium, not by a long shot. Just like every other trace mineral and metal, gallium is present in sea water (at about 3E-05 ppm). Not easy or cheap to extract, but PLENTY of it there. As in somewhere in the order of a million tons at any given time. And best yet, it regenerates every 10 years (which is the approximate average time a gallium atom spends sea-borne before, I presume, winding up at the bottom.)

Of course there's the little technicality that we don't know how to destroy large quantities of matter yet (exception: certain nuclear isotopes are "destroyed" as they decay). So, basically, all the gallium atoms that are on this planet will still be here no matter what we do to or with them. As with all other trace minerals, we would need to look no further than our landfills to get them back. Again, not as cheap. But will we run out? HECK NO!

Comment by Die Daily
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"everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry"? Wha wha what? There are still people out there who do not know peak oil was itself a hoax? That no evidence has materialized to support it? That droves of very obvious and self-evident facts have left no shred of that "theory" intact? Whoah. That's too bad!

Comment by Nick Barnett
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Depending on how the sun is behaving, the last bit of our atmosphere is about 300 miles up. :)

Comment by Ernest Hancock
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Ahhh, OK. I'll bite. What's 300 miles up?

Comment by Powell Gammill
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All the "minerals" you could everuse are located within 300 miles of anywhere on the Earth.  All you have to do is go up.

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