Not Enough Metal

Here’s something new to worry about. According to a study led by Thomas Graedel of Yale University, the Earth is running out of metal:

Using copper stocks in North America as a starting point, the researchers tracked the evolution of copper mining, use and loss during the 20th century. They then combined this information with other data to estimate what the global demand for copper and other metals would be if all nations were fully developed and using modern technologies.

According to the study, all of the copper in ore, plus all of the copper currently in use, would be required to bring the world to the level of the developed nations for power transmission, construction and other services and products that depend on the metal.

As is the case with oil and natural gas, the cause of all this is development in formerly underdeveloped nations. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and discussed in, should concern those of us who believe fuel cells will soon emerge as a cleaner energy alternative:

(S)carce metals, such as platinum, face depletion risks this century because of the lack of suitable substitutes in such devices as catalytic converters and hydrogen fuel cells.

(To be fair, keep in mind that forecasts like this have been made before. In 1980, economist Julian Simon bet population biologist Paul Erlich that any ten natural resources of Erlich’s choosing would go down in price over a ten-year period.  Simon won the bet, which he said demonstrated that markets take care of problems caused by increased population and rising demand for limited resources.  You could make that bet today, and possibly lose again in ten years, human ingenuity being what it is.  But nothing lasts forever.)


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