Peak metals

  1. Is coking coal the biggest limit to steel production?
  2. At what price
  3. See the Hubbert’s peak wiki
  4. Lester Brown
  5. Worldchanging quotes The Oil Drum authors Bardi and Pagani.
  6. New Scientist — May 2007
  7. Reflections: The Death of Gallium by Robert Silverberg
  8. Peak Lithim

1. Is coking coal the biggest limit to steel production?

Vaclav Smil stated of alternatives to coking coal that:-

“a complete replacement of 520 million tonnes of coke [based on 2008 requirements for steel production] (setting aside those nontrivial matters of differences in compressive strength and furnace size) would require nearly 2.1 billion tonnes of wood. Even if that wood were to come from such high-yielding species as tropical eucalypts, producing about 10 tonnes per hectare/year, today’s iron smelting would require harvesting annually an area of 210 million hectares of well-managed tropical wood plantations –- or an area equivalent to half of Brazil’s Amazon tropical rain forest.”
From his PDF

 But there’s a problem. Vaclav does not seem to know that HYDROGEN can replace coking coal. As Dr Barry Brook states:

But wait. There is one other element that can be used as a reductant in steel manufacture (driving off the oxygen from iron ore) at practical temperatures, and the process is well proven. That is… hydrogen.

So I can see a great role for high temperature fast spectrum nuclear reactors such as the lead-cooled variety, for CO2-free thermochemical production of hydrogen, for the critical iron-steel making industry (or the Integral Fast Reactor via electrolysis). This is yet another advantage of Gen IV nuclear that I’d not previously considered — build a reactor next to each major blast furnace and pipe the hydrogen directly and simply, over short distances (so avoid issues with hydrogen storage and long-distance piping). This honestly seems to offer the only feasible way to get rid of coking coal and the 7% of global anthropogenic carbon emissions that this process causes. The steelworks at Whyalla in South Australia, is an obvious place to demonstate this potentially superb synergy.

So, whilst the ‘hydrogen transport economy’ may still be a long way from reality, its major use in industrial applications like steelmaking may be much closer than many might have imagined. Time to start re-hyping hydrogen!

2. At what price?

Many doomers will even admit that there is plenty of metal in the earth’s crust, in very low parts-per-million, if we have enough energy to mine it. Then they just assume peak energy, that when fossil fuels run out it’s the end of energy sources, without actually analysing the abundant affordable reliable energy we can have from nuclear power. But with nuclear power, we have an abundant source of energy to recharge any energy carrier we want, like synthetic diesel or boron pellets. The mega-machines of today can chew through normal rock and dirt and find enough metals in tiny parts per million if the price is right. We have the means to wean off oil.

3. Hubbert’s peak wiki which goes on from oil and gas to discuss peak metals.

4. Lester Brown

What will the world be like when we have run out of copper or steel? The average building today relies upon a great quantity of these resources for its construction. Faced with these facts, we can easily imagine a future in which industry has completely re-engineered its handling of material resources. After all, there seems to be no other choice.
1, Brown, Lester, Plan B 2.0, New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. p. 109

5. Worldchanging quoting The Oil Drum authors Bardi and Pagani.

The minerals Bardi and co-author Marco Pagani found to be peaking were Mercury, Tellurium, Lead, Cadmium, Potash, Phosphate rock, Thallium Selenium, Zirconium, Rhenium, and Gallium. Note that most of these are key components in computers and other electronics.

6. New Scientist May 2007 — click HERE for their great graphics and maps!

Take the metal gallium, which along with indium is used to make indium gallium arsenide. This is the semiconducting material at the heart of a new generation of solar cells that promise to be up to twice as efficient as conventional designs. Reserves of both metals are disputed, but in a recent report René Kleijn, a chemist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, concludes that current reserves “would not allow a substantial contribution of these cells” to the future supply of solar electricity. He estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells – a limitation imposed purely by a lack of raw material.

To get a feel for the scale of the problem, we have turned to data from the US Geological Survey’s annual reports and UN statistics on global population. This has allowed us to estimate the effect that increases in living standards will have on the time it will take for key minerals to run out (see Graphs).

How many years, for instance, would these minerals last if every human on the planet were to consume them at just half the rate of an average US resident today?

The calculations are crude – they don’t take into account any increase in demand due to new technologies, and also assume that current production equals consumption. Yet even based on these assumptions, they point to some alarming conclusions. 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 (see Diagram).

Our hunger for metals and minerals may not grow indefinitely, however. When Tom Graedel and colleagues at Yale University looked at figures for the consumption of iron – one of our planet’s most plentiful metals – they found that per capita consumption in the US levelled off around 1980. “This suggests there might be only so many iron bridges, buildings and cars a member of a technologically advanced society needs,” Graedel says. He is now studying whether this plateau is a universal phenomenon, in which case it might be possible to predict the future iron requirements of developing nations. Whether consumption of other metals is also set to plateau seems more questionable. Demand for copper, the only other metal Graedel has studied, shows no sign of levelling off, and based on 2006 figures for per capita consumption he calculates that by 2100 global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable from the ground.

7. Reflections: The Death of Gallium by Robert Silverberg

But the sobering truth is that we still have millions of years to go before our own extinction date, or so we hope, and at our present rate of consumption we are likely to deplete most of the natural resources this planet has handed us. We have set up breeding and conservation programs to guard the few remaining whooping cranes, Indian rhinoceroses, and Siberian tigers. But we can’t exactly set up a reservation somewhere where the supply of gallium and hafnium can quietly replenish itself. And once the scientists have started talking about our chances of running out of copper, we know that the future is rapidly moving in on us and big changes lie ahead.
Back to the beginning

8. Peak Lithium?

Again with most metals issues the economic crisis comes when we can’t supply enough to meet demand. Ultimately there may be plenty of metals on the earth, and if I’m right about the potential of renewable energy our granchildren can possibly even extract metals from the oceans. We are going to have an interesting time getting there.

Big Gav reports… Auto Blog Green had an interesting post recently on lithium supplies – noting “peak lithium” may be just as much a problem as peak oil. Lithium is an important material for many types of battery, so any real supply limits would be a problem for the V2G / smart grid idea if these become the dominant type of battery in plug in hybrids and electric cars. Of course, how much lithium is really out there (and how well lithium batteries will fare compared to ultracapacitors and the like) still seem to be fairly open questions.

Lithium ion battery technology is all the rage when talking about future vehicle propulsion systems. Everybody wants lithium ion batteries because so far they are the only electro-chemical batteries devised that come close to providing the energy density necessary to be truly useful for passenger vehicles. There are lots of promising variations that may be able to improve the lifespan and chargeability of such cells, but one question has remained unasked. At least until now. The ability of the electrical grid to support large scale use of EVs is an open question, although some recent studies seem to indicate that having vehicles charged mostly at night, might be beneficial. The new question is “Where do we get the lithium?”In a story in the Toronto Star, William Tahil, research director with Meridian International Research asserts that there isn’t enough lithium available to mine to support the world’s 900 million vehicles. Evidently most of the known supplies of lithium are in South America, in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, potentially making them the new OPEC. Bolivia alone may have fifty percent of the world’s metal lithium reserves. Production of 60 million PHEVs with smaller lithium batteries than would be needed for a full EV would require 420,000 tonnes of lithium every year, which is six times the current production level. So it looks like any potential savings from mass producing lithium batteries, could easily get negated and then some just by increasing demand driving up raw material costs.

Tahil proposes that battery research should be more focused on technology that uses more common metals like nickel and zinc. The article mentions sodium nickel chloride (Zebra) batteries and zinc air batteries. The Zebra batteries apparently tolerate cold and hot temperatures well, something lithium batteries generally don’t. It looks like we need to start looking past lithium even before it gets established.

Or as TheStar itself writes:

“So the automakers and electric-vehicle enthusiasts have to ask themselves whether the focus on lithium-ion technology is a jump from the frying pan into the fire; from peak oil to peak lithium.

Tahil believes so, and suggests that the industry should focus more on battery technologies based on more common metals, such as nickel or zinc. This would include sodium nickel chloride or “Zebra” batteries and zinc air batteries.”

“For manufacturing on the scale of the automobile industry, we need access to an abundant resource, over which there will be no possible supply constraints or price volatility,” continues Tahil.

“The world’s ecosystems are already overexploited. To cause further damage to unique and irreplaceable habitats for an insufficient resource when nickel and zinc are already available in our industrial infrastructure would be irresponsible.”


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