As global industrialization has increased, so has the demand for the earth’s resources. Recent estimates place world population at slightly over 7 billion. The number of humans on earth required about 30,000 years to reach a billion in the early 19th century and only 13 years to add the last billion. Nations are competing fiercely as population grows. When natural resources are removed from the earth’s crust, the amount available decreases.
More People Place a Greater Demand on Resources
Global industrialization has caused the demand for energy to soar — particularly in China. Likely, the world has used half of the available crude oil in less than 150 years and demand is increasing. Most of the “easy” oil has been found, and new drilling involves extraction of crude by improved techniques and drilling in increasingly remote places and deeper wells.
Shortages in our crude oil remain unresolved as this is just one of our disappearing natural resources. Another resource like phosphorus, which is a primary component of fertilizers, has already diminished significantly. With the human population ballooning exponentially, more food crops are needed to meet food demands. Scientists now estimate that phosphorus supplies will be depleted by 2035.
Gold and Copper are not the Only Metals that are Disappearing
Copper has a multitude of uses as electrical cables and wiring to plumbing and other less well-known application. The world demand has soared from just over a million tons in 1900 to 15 million tons in 2000. Supplies barely match demand now. China uses about a fifth of the world’s copper. Supplies are supplemented by significant recycling.
Gold is a legitimately rare element, although not the rarest. Gold comprises about three ten-millionths of a percent of the earth’s crust. All of the gold ever mined by man would fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. Its scarcity has limited its main uses to primarily jewelry, coins, and backing up world currency supplies, but gold has numerous technological applications as well. Copper, by the way, is over 21,000 times more abundant than gold.
Nickel and zinc are found in quantities close to copper — approximately 0.001% of the earth’s crust. These metals are under increasing demand and predictions of shortages are common news.
Minerals not known by many are in dangerously short supply. Most of these minerals are in demand for specialized technological and industrial uses. There are 17 elements classified collectively as rare earth metals. These include, for example, lanthanum, neodymium, terbium, and scandium. Their scarcities vary.
Rare earth metals are vital components in cell phones, televisions, and a variety of military applications. While not as pricey as gold, rare earth element values increased by 500 percent after 2010, but have recently declined. China has a virtual monopoly on the production of rare earth metals.
Well-Known Resources are Under Increasing Demand
Platinum is about as rare as gold, and has a wider demand for technological applications. Hydrogen fuel cells being developed for cars, for example, need platinum. The current reserves of platinum cannot meet the demand of millions of cars using fuel cells in the future.
Helium gas has some highly technical applications, but is known primarily as the gas that floats our balloons. The price is soaring. Helium is a by-product of radioactive decay deep within the earth, and some is trapped in natural gas. Helium will never “run out,” because it is constantly being replaced, but as its price continues to increase it could become very expensive. Its price has tripled in 50 years, and it may soon be too pricey for uses like balloons.
There is Good News Among the Shortage Fears
The best news for scarce resources is recycling. Gold and platinum are too valuable to be simply thrown away, so the motivation for recycling them is great. Less exotic metals like aluminum, copper, and zinc can be worth significant amounts in quantity. Copper brings $1.00 to $2.50 a pound at the time of this article, depending on its purity and condition.
Although individual recycling efforts are significant, industrial recycling has had an increasing impact on soaring costs. A recycled metal is less expensive to reprocess than extracting it from ore. Landfills now recover part of their costs of operation by recycling.
There are also chances that new deposits will be discovered. Recent acquisitions of significant rare earth deposits in Canada and Wyoming are encouraging. Numerous ventures outside of China offer some promise for more rare earth metals.
Most people are unaware of the impending shortages of many of the earth’s resources. Global industrialization — particularly in China — has strained existing supplies of many metals. Technological advances have increased the applications for metals, particularly the rare earths. Even helium gas is in short supply. Recycling efforts are increasing and have been successful in stretching supplies. New sources of rare earths offer some hope that impending shortages will be delayed.