Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Friday, May 27, 2011

What future for metals?



Front cover of the recent book by Philippe Bihouix and Benoit de Guillebon, titled "Quel futur pour les métaux?" ("what future for metals?") subtitled, "Raréfaction des métaux, un nuveau défi pour la société" ("metal depletion, a new challenge for society").


Resource depletion (which includes "peak oil") is a popular subject nowadays. When dealing with the world's mineral resources in general, it is a subject that I have covered with a couple of posts on "The Oil Drum", one titled "The Universal Mining Machine." Clearly, the interest in depletion is growing, as shown also by a book by André Diederen, "Global resource depletion"  and by the recent one by Bihouix and De Guillebon "What future for metals?"

The basic conclusion of all these studies is that the problem we have may not be so much one of energy scarcity. We have good technical solutions to generate energy without the need fossil fuels. Whether generated by renewables or by nuclear energy, electricity is always the same (an electron is an electron is an electron). The problem is that when we extract and use mineral resources, we disperse the end products (that we call "waste") it in the environment in ways that make recovery extremely difficult and in any case enormously expensive. The problem is, basicaly, impossible to solve; it can only be mitigated by radical changes in the structure of the industrial system. Our civilization will survive only if it will be able to learn how to operate using a much smaller input of metals - especially the rarest ones.

This is the theme of the book by Bihouix and Guillebon, "What future for metals?" It is a review of the world's situation which attempts to present the complete picture. You'll find in it chapters on most of the critical sectors of the economy where the input of mineral resources is a crucial factor; batteries, buildings, electronics, nuclear energy, renewables and much more, even touching such fields as pigments and cosmetics. It is a true mine of information. If you are interested in this field (and you are, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this post!) and if you can read French (*), do read this book! Its conclusions, as obvious, cannot be very optimistic in terms of what is in store for us for the future but, at least, we must know what are the challenges ahead.



*Most of what is written on the web on resource depletion seems to be in English, but there exist also a lively debate in other languages - French, Spanish, Italian, German and, perhaps, other languages. It is too bad that very often these debates go in parallel, without touching each other. So, English speakers often miss excellent contributions in other languages, such as this book in French by Bihouix and de Guillebon. I could also point out an excellent site on peak oil in Spanish, "The Oil Crash" kept by Antonio Turiel. And, of course, my own modest blog in Italian "Effetto Cassandra" (I try to translate it in English, when I can) and "Petrolio" - also in Italian - kept by "our lady of petroleum, Debora Billi. Unfortunately, Google translation and similar programs are still far away from being up to the task of making these different languages "user transparent." Maybe, one day, we'll have good automatic translation programs, and that will open up a truly global debate. Of course, however, that won't solve the problem of how to understand each other when we meet face to face. But that goes back to the time of the tower of Babel's and there is not much that can be done about it!

3 comments:

  1. eeehmm... Have you a scanned copy? (oops, @ laws)

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  2. You can find the paper edition on amazon.fr, while the PDF can be bought HERE.

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  3. Some sections of the book can be read HERE

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)