October 23, 2011

True Limits for food, energy and minerals are very distant

Many people get crazed by the idea that there will not be enough food, energy or minerals for human civilization. A New Scientist article published some estimates for very short times before certain key minerals ran out

* indium(used in lcd monitors): 4-13 years
* silver: 9-29 years
* lead: 8-42 years
* antimony(used in pharmaceutical drugs): 13-30 years
* tin: 17-40 years
* uranium: 19-59
* zinc: 34-46 years
* gold: 36-45 years
* copper(wire, plumbing, pennies): 38-61 years
* nickel: 57-90 years

This information is wrong.

It is based upon running out of what are currently commercially classified reserves.

When you underestimate how much food, energy and minerals you have by thousands and billions of times then you make very bad choices and plans. If you make an estimate of how much you have after a plane crash that is one thousand times too low then you may choose to pursue the Donner Party (cannibalism) option way too soon, when you actually had food for decades and not a couple of days.

For the world and civilization - it is let us not start sterilizing killing other countries yet - when there can be bountiful genetically modified crops and stacked fish farming for everyone.

Uranium has an estimated reserves of about 5.4 million tons. But the cumulative uranium exploration expenditure for 50 years has been about 8 billion. Recently about $10 million was spent exploring Namibia for uranium and about 100,000 tons was found.

Affordable Uranium from Phosphate for four times current proven reserves

Uranium has been recovered from phosphate at the rate of about 5,000 tons per year at various times. It goes up and down based upon the price of raw uranium.

If the historic uranium recovery from phosphate process were to be revived in the current economic climate, recovery costs would be around $50-70 per pound U3O8 and would be above the current spot market prices for uranium. The PhosEnergy process, however, can deliver low operating costs estimated at $20-25 per pound U3O8 and uranium recoveries estimated at 92% with improved environmental outcomes and reduced waste, the company claims.

The PhosEnergy process is designed as a "bolt-on" that can be added to existing phosphate processing facilities. A fully integrated and process controlled demonstration plant that fits into two 40-foot (12-metre) shipping containers has been built in Australia and is now undergoing final commissioning before being shipped to the USA.

Worldwide, more than 100 million tonnes of phosphate rock is processed into phosphoric acid annually, with major producers in North America, northern Africa and Asia. According to UEQ this could represent potential uranium production of 20 million pounds U3O8 (7690 tU) per year. Total world uranium production from all sources in 2010 was 53,663 tU, with Cameco producing some 16% of that from its interests in Canada, the USA and Kazakhstan.

A PhosEnergy Process plant could be in production from 2013, and with an anticipated production rate of 1 Mlb U3O8/a, the estimated capital cost is $100M and the estimated operating cost is US$25-30/lb

Rock Phosphate has about 9 to 22 million tons of uranium.

Current usage is about 68,000 tU/yr. Only about 3% is used because that is the Uranium 235 portion.

Uranium and other minerals from seawater

Japan is getting the cost of recovering uranium from seawater down to about 1.7 times the current cost of uranium.

This process could be scaled up at locations like the Black sea current where enough water would be moved through the material that captures the metals

The Japanese process is to use irradiated polymers and stick a braided net of it into the ocean and basically "fish" for 30-90 days for Uranium.

There are other rare metals in seawater. Lithium seems like a valuable target. Its price is in the $80/kg range and there is concern about having enough Lithium for lithium ion batteries. There is 56 times as much Lithium as Uranium in seawater. At $80/kg it would be a $14,000 trillion resource.

Boron and strontium and other materials could also be affordably recovered from the ocean (an initially from brines).

Uranium can be used more efficiently with breeder reactors and other kinds of new reactors with a higher burn rate.

China has 2030 to 2050 and beyond plans to use the phosphate uranium and offsite processing to close the uranium fuel cycle

China has announced that they plan to eventually scale up uranium collection of phosphates to 200,000 tons per year and to close the uranium fuel cycle with offsite reprocessing.

So closing the fuel cycle uranium goes 30 Times further and using more uranium exploration doubles reserves or more and uranium from phosphate doubles or triples it again. Uranium from seawater would increase it by 150 times from the level of phosphate.

Gold and Copper on the sea floor soon to be recovered

Gold and copper and other metals will also soon be recovered in large quantities from the ocean floor

If just 3 percent of the dissolved minerals precipitate -- an estimate based on earlier studies -- the ocean floor would hold reserves vastly greater than those on land.

"I think there's a good chance that it's a lot more than 3 percent," Cathles said. "But even just taking 3 percent, if you calculate how long the copper on the ocean floor would last, just half of it could last humanity 50 centuries or more.

Enough Food as well
Realistic agricultural yield increases can feed everyone even with increased population and richer diets.

The Agrimonde study said that North Africa and the Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all with fast-growing populations today, will be heavily dependent on imported food in 2050

Under a business-as-usual scenario, all regions in the world would enjoy strong economic growth, invest heavily in research, innovation, education, health and infrastructure. But, under this scenario, there is not a high priority to the environment, with resulting damage to ecosystems.

Under the second scenario, environmental integrity is a key factor.

To achieve this goal in sustainability, rich countries in particular would have to reduce excessive consumption that leads to obesity and tackle loss and waste in food distribution and use that today runs at around 25 percent of production.

Agriculture everywhere would have to be more economical in fossil fuels and make less use of chemicals.

Genetic manipulation of plants to boost yields would be necessary. However, smarter ways of traditional cross-breeding are emerging as good alternatives to genetic engineering, which is a hot political issue in many countries, he said.

There would have to be changes in trade rules so that the food supply line to importing countries becomes stronger and more resilient, thus easing the price shocks that hit producer or customer.

Longer term there is plenty of minerals and energy in the solar system. There will be the time to develop it since there is thousands of times more resources on Earth than the pessimistic estimates. It is important not to make massive errors in resource and food estimates because it leads to pathological thinking. People who vastly underestimate how much food, minerals and energy is available think that more population controls are needed or that there must be wars fought for what they think are rare resources. There is no need to go all "Lord of the Flies", because there will be plenty of food, energy and mineral resources if we do not have idiotic plans and limitations. (Lord of the Flies is a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on a deserted island who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results.)

People also like to point out that with exponential growth then we go beyond the resources of the universe in X thousand years. If there is a possible limit after increasing our resources by billions or trillions of times, then that is an issue that should be managed then. We definitely should expand to at least the resources of the solar system. A solar system spanning civilization (and one that can switch from one solar system to another) is one with the technology to survive any natural disaster even ones of astronomic scale.

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