Saving metal

  1. Do rare earths and metals limit renewables and batteries?
  2. Is coking coal the biggest limit to steel production?
  3. What to do when copper runs out?
  4. Rare earth’s not that rare anyway
  5. Biomining
  6. Recycling
  7. What happens when all the ‘normal’ mines are emptied?
  8. Space!

We are heading into the last decade of ‘normal’ silver mines, and the end is in sight for many other metals. Recycling rare earths for electronics is going to be even more essential. But in our smart phones and computers rare earths are measured in grams. What about the tens of kilograms in our energy systems? Professor Simon Michaux studied energy systems and concluded that there are just not enough metals in the world to build the first generation of renewable energy technology. Fortunately the whole paper was a strawman! (My reply to Michaux – January 2023.)

1. Do rare earths and metals limit renewables and batteries?

Most solar and wind are built without rare earths or metals, and there are now lithium iron batteries for EV’s and they’re working on common table salt for grid-batteries – and one day EV’s! But this is a longer story – for full details click here.

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

Well known energy author Vaclav Smil says that if wood were to try and replace the coking coal we use to flush the oxygen out of the iron ore – it would require so much wood it would be “an area equivalent to half of Brazil’s Amazon tropical rain forest.” Every year. From his PDF. But he did not seem to know about the growth towards ‘green steel’ which uses hydrogen to do the same job. Hydrogen can replace coking coal – and with enough wind and solar to make the hydrogen – we can generate enough green hydrogen to make green steel.

3. What to do when copper runs out?

Take comfort in that even peak oil Doomer Simon Michaux has calculated that there is 4 times as much copper as we need to build all the renewables we need and 1.4 BILLION EV’s – IF we just subtract Michaux’s ridiculous strawman of building 4 weeks metal batteries. So I subtracted the 4 weeks in this post – and according to Michaux’s own numbers – we’re fine!
(We really don’t need 4 weeks storage. First – we Overbuild the renewables to cope with winter. Second, off-river pumped hydro storage IS abundant on most continents – with 100 times more than we need! How did Michaux get around this? He painted the whole world Singapore!)

But what about when copper finally does become limited? We can already substitute many roles of copper with aluminium – which is 1000 times more abundant. Such as HVDC power lines that take huge volumes of electricity across a continent. But some have worked on a graphene aluminium composite that makes aluminium as conductive as copper (May 2021). Wired July 2022.

4. Rare earth’s not that rare anyway

Rare earths are for example 200 times more abundant on earth than gold or platinum. In other words, the exploitable reserves of rare earths are much less critical than those of many other strategic metals. Note that some other metals such as lithium and cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries are not rare earths.

5. Biomining

Microorganisms can extract metals out of dirt. Grind the mine tailings up, put them in a vat, add water and the right bacteria – and they breed by eating the metals and concentrating them out of the dirt. It energy efficient and cheap. We already use biomining for 5% of the world’s gold and 20% of the world’s copper. It can also help with recycling e-waste. See the wiki or this article from American Geosciences.

6. Recycling

This German company can recycle all the metals out of EV batteries (but just burns off some of the plastics.) I have more on Lithium reserves under my Recharge EV’s page.

7. What happens when all the ‘normal’ mines are emptied?

I’ve said this in a few places now, but remember:-

It’s still here: Unlike something like oil that we burn away – we cannot run out of metals. All the metal we have ever mined is still here. We haven’t launched it into the sun. We’ll get better at recycling.

Mine the crust: Once the normal mines are ’empty’ and even the mine’s tailings have been bio-mined, we can start munching through the earth’s crust to bio-mine even that. We’ll change the definition of mining. We can pick an area and mine down good depth. We’ll dump the tailings and build an artificial mountain. We’ll landscape that old mountain and plant shrubs and trees over it to hold it in place. Then as the decades pass we’ll eventually open a new mine and dump the new mine’s waste into the old mine. When that old mine is refilled – we rehabilitate it back to a functioning ecosystem and move along. Rinse and repeat. Each section eventually looks like nothing happened. Some government mine rehabilitation laws already demand this kind of landscape restoration. If we hold our governments and corporations to account – we can have our nature and our mining too.

New materials may be developed: Just as we are researching how to replace copper with specially cooked up aluminium, nanotech manufacturers are looking to do astonishing things with carbon-nanotubes. Indeed – there is so much R&D into new materials all the time that I’m quite confident that there will be new breakthrough renewables and battery chemistries before the 2040’s – let alone when we’ve emptied all the mines!

Demand may stabilise: By the time we have emptied traditional mines the human population should have stabilised in the Worldwide Demographic Transition. We’ll have all the metals we need, already mined, easy to recycle, and a declining population to satisfy. There is some evidence that demand for steel stabilises after a country has industrialised and built out all the bridges and skyscrapers they need. One day I imagine new smart-tech being built out of mostly recycled old e-waste. Finally – do look up! There’s still space to explore!

8. Space: mining the moon, Mercury, and asteroids

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