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Remaining reserves

Published by marco on

The article NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration by Dave Mosher (Wired) discusses a resource shortage that will be hard to address: plutonium.

Plutonium was produced in much larger quantities during the nuclear-arms race of the mid to late 20th century. Though the arms race was morally reprehensible and fantastically expensive, a byproduct was that there was more plutonium available for scientific endeavor. Pound for pound, it is unparalleled as a long-lasting energy source. As of the end of 2013, the US now has only “enough to last to the end of this decade”, according to the article.

“And it’s not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet’s stores are nearly depleted. […] The country’s scientific stockpile has dwindled to around 36 pounds. To put that in perspective, the battery that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently studying the surface of Mars, contains roughly 10 pounds of plutonium, and what’s left has already been spoken for and then some.”

This isn’t the first time that alarm bells have gone off about resource scarcity. We take much of our world for granted and tend to assume that there’s always more than enough available of, well, whatever we need to sustain whatever we’d like to do. Dreams are limited only be capital, not by physical reality.

This reminded me of a couple of diagrams I’d seen before. The two below show that some of the basic elements that we use in almost all of the items to which we’ve become accustomed—basically all electronic goods—will run out within a dozen years to a few decades, at current rates of consumption.

 Amount of natural resources left (The Conservation Report)

 Stock check: estimated remaining world supplies of non-renewable resources

And I’m almost certain that no one has a plan for what happens when we run out of lead, copper, indium, zinc, tin and silver. Probably a heap of resource wars will ensue, as the powers of the world jockey for supplies to create the next iPhone model.

Granted, some of the materials are recovered by recycling, which can be increased to some degree. Entropy ensures that we won’t have a 100% closed cycle; greed and the skewed way we calculate value will ensure that even more is wasted than absolutely necessary.

The numbers are also based on the sources known today. It’s possible that we will find other sources, but the planet is only so big and the sources aren’t guaranteed to be easily extractable or even accessible.

These are interesting numbers to keep in mind the next time you think you need to upgrade your smart phone for the second time in a year. Or perhaps the next time you see an airport absolutely full of televisions, all broadcasting inane content on LCDs whose production consumed precious resources that could have been used for something perhaps more useful.