Sunday, March 8, 2009

Re: Lithium Counterpoint: No Shortage For Electric Cars

In Lithium Counterpoint: No Shortage For Electric Cars Karen Pease lays out an interesting case for there being infinite resources and we don't need to worry our little heads over resource exhaustion. She makes an interesting case but I think her logic is flawed and I want to better understand the real situation. In some ways our modern society is deeply affected by two opposing economic philosophies. One argues that there is no limits to growth, that resources are infinite, there is no end of human ingenuity, etc. The other argues that there is lots of evidence to the contrary, for example biologists recognize that e.g. microorganisms in a culture will expand their population to the maximum extent possible, eat up all the food they can, and then die when there's no more food left. Human culture has long followed a pattern of exhausting resources and moving to the next sector where the pickings are better. Such as this article from a couple years ago, 'Only 50 years left' for sea fish, the cause is the pattern of exhausting fisheries until they collapse and that scientists estimate this pattern will cause all fisheries to be exhausted within 50 years and we will have no more large seafood fish left to harvest.

In her article Ms. Pease describes the resource situation for both Copper and Lithium. The model she describes can be applied to any resource, it seems. The model she describes is how improved technology or machinery investments can allow mineral producers to extract minerals from lower concentration deposits. That is for every resource the producers start with the easy-to-mine deposits, and as those are exhausted they move to lower quality deposits, then lower quality deposits, and so on. This pattern is driven by exhaustion of high quality deposits, that leads to technological breakthroughs allowing extraction from lower quality deposits.

The purest deposits of any resource are incredibly rare. The next best are an order of magnitude more common, and the next best an order of magnitude more common still, and so forth.

She gives an estimate on how many of atoms of copper there are in the earths crust: "about 10^21 kilograms, which means about 60,000,000,000,000 (60 trillion) metric tonnes of copper". Clearly that is an inconceivably large quantity of copper. Yet for some reason there is currently a copper shortage, copper thieves stealing copper sometimes are electrocuted when stealing wires that have current in them, etc.

Likewise she gives an estimate of "1,270,000,000,000,000 kilograms of lithium carbonate" in all the worlds oceans and talks about other vast deposits of Lithium.

So... what are we worried about? There is an inconceivably large quantity of copper, lithium.. and perhaps other resources. In the Peak Oil (peak oil websites) theory it's said we're about to reach a point where worldwide oil production will inevitably decline with disastrous consequences to our human society. Maybe peak oil is poppycock, and that other resources will be tapped to supply the liquid oil and we don't have to worry about it. Such as coal liquefaction or the processing of tar sands, both of which can benefit from more technology, resource or investment to increase production.

In other words perhaps the reason animal populations exhaust their resources are that the animals aren't smart enough to develop better technologies? We are animals too and fortunately we are smart enough to have the ingenuity to think ourselves out of the messes we get ourselves into, while yeast only knows how to eat sugar.

Here are a couple points I have in mind about this picture she paints.

While the numbers she gives are inconceivably large it is impractical to extract every atom of every resource. Take the lithium in the ocean. To extract all that lithium would mean processing every ounce of ocean water to get that inconceivably large quantity of lithium. Obviously it's impractical to do so. Instead as you process ocean water you'll be pouring it back into the ocean and the ocean will have a decreasing concentration of lithium (and whatever else is extracted). Eventually the concentration will dip low enough to be nonextractable. Further what about the effect of extracting lithium from the ocean? Does this harm the ocean water to process it to extract minerals? Does the lower concentration of minerals in the ocean negatively effect the animals and plants growing in the ocean? Are there chemicals added to ocean water to extract the minerals and thereby adding new chemicals to the ocean?

Similarly to extract all that copper from the earth's crust means, uh, processing, uh, every ounce of the earth's crust. That would obviously have a negative impact on the ability of us to have a place to live.

In other words the inconceivably large numbers she gives are a lie. The extractable quantity of a given resource is the amount one should focus on, not the total amount. Okay, clearly "extractable" is dependent on feats of technological prowess and perhaps there will in the future be ray guns that can be fired into the ocean to magically lift out the lithium without any other effect on anything. Yeah, right. Only some portion of the existing copper or lithium or oil or uranium etc can be extracted from the planet without destroying the planet along the way, at a given level of technological prowess.

The next point is the pattern of resource exhaustion. Human society has for millennia followed a pattern of overfishing, over grazing, and over extracting each area they live in, then when a given area stops producing they move to the next, and to the next, and to the next. This is the hunter gatherer cycle but also works in other cultural styles. For example the practice of crop rotation is this same resource exhaustion pattern but instead of moving on the practice is to let a field go fallow for a year or two. Um, because, uh, they exhausted the field? And moved on from that field to another until the exhausted field has a chance to recover? Uh?

In modern days one form we experience resource exhaustion is the throw away nature of most of the modern gadgets we buy. Rather than proper metal silverware that can be used for a hundred years, often we're eating with plastic sporks that are used once and thrown away. The plastic knife might not even be used and still get thrown away. The more ethical of the plasticware is made of new plastics that can be composted, after, uh, they are thrown away.

This pattern of using something once and then throwing it away is a resource exhaustion pattern. It means that it doesn't matter how big the resource pool is, that if it's used and then thrown away and not reused, eventually that resource pool will be exhausted. An interesting analogy is to consider the food in your refrigerator. If you don't replenish the food, and simply take some out every day and eat it, eventually the food runs out. I am however talking at a global scale.

Also you can use something a dozen times and still be in a resource exhaustion pattern if it is thrown away at the end, and not reused.

A different pattern is to reuse everything. Biological systems reuse everything. When a tree dies and falls over in the forest, a whole swarm of different animal and plant life descend on the tree carcass to eat it, turn it into new soil, etc, and every ounce of the tree is reused to make more plants and animals and trees. Biological life on this planet has lived for over a billion years and even though it goes through occasional extinctions etc, biological life shows all signs of continuing for another billion or more years on this planet. That is if we don't dig up every ounce of soil to extract the minerals. The success of biological life is due to reusing everything. Recycling is a good idea, and humanity doesn't recycle enough.

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