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Science Progress (2011), 94(3), 323–334.

10.3184/003685011X13140166605012

Progress in Science
Current Commentary

Shortage of resources for renewable energy


and food production
Christopher J. Rhodes
E-mail: cjrhodes@fresh-lands.com

UK government report calls for ‘‘strategic metals’’ plan


Not only are supplies of oil and natural gas under imminent threat of failing
to meet demand for them, but so is that of a whole range of precious
metals, along with indium, gallium and germanium and other vital elements
such as phosphorus and helium, as is discussed throughout this commentary.
A report1 from the Science and Technology Committee, advised by the Royal
Society of Chemistry, warns that if the UK does not secure supplies of
strategic metals, its economic growth will be severely jeopardized. Of
particular concern are indium, used in touch screens and liquid crystal
displays, and rare earth elements (REEs) particularly neodymium and
dysprosium, used to fabricate highly efficient magnets for electric cars and
wind turbines. Platinum group metals are an issue too, used in catalytic
converters and fuel cells. As is true of oil and gas, and indeed the world
population, such resources are not evenly distributed around the globe, for
example 80% of available new platinum is extracted from just two mines in
South Africa; 92% of the niobium used in the world (for superconducting
magnets and highly heat-resisting superalloys e.g. in jet-engines and rocket
subassemblies) is exported from Brazil, and 97% of REEs are presently
supplied from China. In developing a low-carbon transport infrastructure, it is
proposed that biofuels should be used principally for aviation where there is
no practical alternative to liquid fuels. Thus, it is ventured, electric cars will
become increasingly important in providing personalised transport while
avoiding the use of petroleum or natural-gas based fuels. The knock-on effect
is that new sources of lithium must be found along with the means to mine
and process the metal, plus the inauguration of recycling technology to
recover it. One can immediately take issue with the practicalities of both
arms of this scheme, however. Roughly 20% of all fuel in the UK is used for
aircraft, or around 13 million tonnes. At a yield of 952 Lyha and a density of

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0.88 gycm3, to produce this much biodiesel would take 15.5 million hectares
of arable land, of which the UK has only 6.5 million hectares. Thus if we
were to stop growing food crops entirely and just rapeseed, we could still
only fuel 42% of our aviation fleet. It is obvious that just a few percent at
best of our current number of planes can be kept in the air by means of
biofuels. Clearly, the days of cheap air-travel are numbered and this may be
one reason why the coalition government has scrapped plans to build the
controversial and vexed third runway at Heathrow Airport. Given the 30
million cars on British roads are currently fuelled by oil, the case for a wide-
scale implementation of electric-cars might appear compelling. However, the
lead-in time to make a dent in that number of vehicles and the 60 million
tonnes of crude oil used to fuel them would be decades at best, even if the
necessary supplies of REEs, lithium and overall manufacturing capacity for
them could be achieved. The most practical use for electricity is to power
mass transportation, e.g. tramways and railway networks rather than
individual vehicles.

Endangered elements: threat to green energy


Underpinning the above political agenda, a list2 of ‘‘endangered elements’’ has
been published in a new report, including the REEs, in particular neodymium,
production of which, it is reckoned3, will have to increase five-fold to build
enough magnets for the number of wind-turbines deemed necessary for a
fully renewable future. Nonetheless, my rough calculations indicate that this
would still take 50 – 100 years to implement, depending on exactly what
proportion of the renewable electricity budget would be met from wind-
power, and if the manufacturing capacity and other resources of materials
and energy needed for this Herculean task will prevail.
Neodymium is a rare earth metal used extensively to produce
permanent magnets found in everything from computer hard disks and cell
phones to wind turbines and cars. Neodymium magnets are the strongest
permanent magnets known, and a neodymium magnet of a few grams can lift
a thousand times its own weight. The magnets that drive a Toyota Prius
hybrid’s electric motor use around 1 kg of neodymium, while 10 – 15 kg of
lanthanum is used in its battery3. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were
invented in the 1980s to overcome the global cobalt supply shock that
occurred as the result of internal warfare in Zaire (now Congo). Around one
tonne of REE-based permanent magnets is needed to provide each MW of
wind-turbine power.
Of the other REEs, demands for dysprosium and terbium, which are
harder elements to extract than their lighter relatives, are such that supply
will be outpaced within a decade. The latter have been described as
‘‘miracle’’ ingredients for green energy production since small quantities of
dysprosium can result in magnets with only 10% of the weight of

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conventional permanent magnets of similar strength, while terbium can be
used to furnish lights that use as little as 20% of the power consumed by
normal illumination. By alloying neodymium with dysprosium and terbium,
magnets are created that more readily maintain their magnetism at the high
temperatures of hybrid car engines3.
However, far more dysprosium relative to neodymium is required
than occurs naturally in the REE ores, meaning that another source of
dysprosium must be found if hybrid cars are to be manufactured at a
seriously advancing rate. As noted, almost all REEs come from China which it
appears will run out of dysprosium and terbium within 15 years, or sooner if
demand continues to soar, notwithstanding that Chinese hegemony for its
own future energy projects may mean that the current amount of REEs being
released onto the world markets will be severely curbed. Almost certainly,
new sources of REEs will be sought, given their vital importance to providing
future renewable energy, and Japanese geologists have reported that there
may be 100 billion tonnes of REEs in the mud of the floor of the Pacific
Ocean4. Since the minerals were found at depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres
(11,500 – 20,000 ft) below the ocean surface, the undertaking required to
recover them will not be trivial, however, and the practicalities of the
enterprise remain to be seen.

Peak oil – peak minerals


According to the Hubbert theory5, all resources are finite and will ultimately
be extracted only to the limit where it is feasible to do so, whereupon either
financial costs or those of energy dictate that to proceed further only yields
diminishing returns. The Hubbert theory was originally applied to oil, in
which the production curve ‘‘peaks’’ at the point of maximum output (when
half the original resource has been used), beyond which it falls remorselessly.
Similar fits can also be made to gas and coal production data and a recent
analysis was reported using the approach to a study6 of 57 different minerals
by Ugo Burdi and Marco Pagini. These authors have fitted both logistic and
Gaussian functions to mineral production data from the United States
Geological Survey (USGS), and it is interesting that for mercury, lead,
cadmium and selenium, there is good accord found between the ‘‘ultimate
recoverable resources’’ URR determined from the curve-fitting to the data
and those reported as remaining in the USGS tables (plus the amount of
each already extracted). For tellurium, phosphorus, thallium, zirconium and
rhenium, the agreement is quite close but tends to smaller values than are
indicated from the figures for cumulative production plus the USGS reserves.
For gallium, the figure obtained from the fitting analysis is significantly lower
than the USGS estimate (by about a factor of seven).
Evidence of peaking is found for a number of minerals, e.g. mercury
around 1962; lead in 1986; zirconium in 1990; selenium in 1994; gallium in
2000. The results for gallium are significant, both in that the peak occurred

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seven years ago and in the size of its total reserve, which when compared
with the amount used worldwide by the electronics industry, implies that we
may run short of gallium any time soon. Tellurium and selenium are two
other minerals that underpin the semiconductor industry and it appears that
their fall in production may also impact negatively on future technologies that
are entirely reliant upon them, since there are no obvious substitute
materials with precisely equivalent properties.
For vanadium, although a production peak is indicated in 2005, the
data in the ‘‘mineral commodities handbook’’ show a later and sudden surge
in production, which is not fully explained but thought may potentially relate
to uncertainties in reporting from countries like China. So, there may be a
real and ongoing upsurge in production from particularly the Chinese
economy which is quoted as being ‘‘out of sync’’ with the rest of the world,
such is its massive expansion, or it might be a red herring.
Hafnium, another metal whose days are numbered, is an essential
component of computer chips and is also employed as a thermal-neutron
absorber in nuclear control-rods, is thought may literally run-out within 10
years. Peak oil we all know about, but peak gas, peak uranium and peak coal
will follow. There is, in fact, a peak in the production of all materials that
were laid down in the distant past, and we are using them up at an
expanding rate.
Interestingly, copper, zinc, tin, nickel and platinum show an almost
exponential increase in production; however, the stocks of some metals may
be insufficient to supply the technological demands of the modern developed
world into the far (or even near) future. There is also the issue of how
quickly a rare and difficultly extractable metal such as platinum might be
produced in comparison with an overall demand for it. Copper production
can be fitted with an exponential function up to 2006, while a logistic
function provides about the same quality of fit, yet indicates a peak in about
2040. The latter agrees reasonably well with the USGS estimated copper
reserves of 0.5 – 1.0 Gigatons, while the fit gives 2 Gigatons. Notably, the
world price of copper has sky-rocketed during the past few years, which is
again attributed to the demand in China, as was the cost and shortage of
wood earlier in the year.
The above analyses rest upon the case that the determined ‘‘peaks’’
represent actual global production maxima. Indeed, more reserves of all
minerals may yet be found if we look assiduously enough for them; but
herein lies the issue of underpinning costs, both in terms of finance and
energy. It is the latter that may determine the real peaking and decline of
minerals, which extend beyond the simple facts, say, of mining and refining a
metal from its crude ore. There is also the cost-contribution from the
energy needed to garner energy-materials such as oil, gas, coal and uranium,
and thence to turn them into power and machinery; and since fossil fuels are
being relentlessly depleted, it takes an inexorable amount energy to produce
them, resulting in a cumulative and rising energy demand overall.

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The whole ‘‘extractive system’’ is interconnected through required
underpinning supplies of fossil fuels, and it is perhaps this that explains why
the production of so many minerals seems to be peaking during the period
between the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, in a
virtual mirror-image of the era when troubles in the production of fossil fuels
were experienced across the globe. Hence, it may be the lack of fossil fuels
which determines the real amount of all other minerals that can be brought
onto the world markets6. Some salient points about potential metals
shortages are apparent from the list of elements in Table 17, which gives the
world total reserve of each, the expected time of exhaustion based on
current rates of production, and their principal uses. The figures therein are
based on known reserves, noting that more might be found if they were
explored for with sufficient assiduousness. However, emerging new
technologies and a growing world population mean that some key-metals are
likely to be exhausted more quickly, as indicated in Table 27. The reserve
lifetime of a resource (also known as the RyP ratio) is defined as the known
economically recoverable amount (R) divided by the current rate of use (P)
of it, hence the values in Tables 1 and 2. Economics predicts that as the
lifetime of a reserve shortens so its price increases. Consequently, demand
for that reserve decreases and other sources, once thought too expensive,
enter the market. This tends to make the original reserve last longer, in
addition to the volume of the new reserves. For example, there is enough
bauxite reckoned to provide aluminium for 70 years, but the latter is an
abundant element and there are many alternative known sources of it,
thought to add-up to over 1,000 years worth. In practice, many other factors
are involved, particularly geopolitical situations, but the basic geological fact
remains: reserves are limited and hence their present patterns of
consumption and growth are not sustainable over the longer term. While
some elements are very plentiful compared to the total amount of them
required, the rate at which they can be recovered sets a limit on how
quickly a given reserve can be exploited. The RyP ratio analysis is, of course,
a gross approximation, as the Hubbert-type fits to production show, since a
given amount of a resourceyyear cannot be produced up to the bitter end.
Production must eventually decline, mainly as the Energy Returned on Energy
Invested (EROEI) falls.

The role of recycling


In the face of resource depletion, recycling looks increasingly attractive. In
this stage of development of the throw-away society, now might be the time
to begin ‘‘mining’’ its refuse. It has been shown that there are part-per-
million (p.p.m.) quantities of platinum in road-side dust8, which is similar to
the 3 p.p.m. concentration in South African platinum ore. It is suggested that
extracting platinum from this dust, which originates in catalytic converters,

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Table 1 Metals under threat: the world total reserve of each, and the expected time of
exhaustion based on current rates of production and their principal uses7

Aluminium, 32,350 million tonnes, 1,027 years (transport, electrical, consumer-durables)


Arsenic, 1 million tonnes, 20 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Antimony, 3.86 million tonnes, 30 years (some pharmaceuticals and catalysts)
Cadmium, 1.6 million tonnes, 70 years (Ni – Cd batteries)
Chromium, 779 million tonnes, 143 years (chrome plating)
Copper, 937 million tonnes, 61 years (wires, coins, plumbing)
Gallium, 1000 – 1500 tonnes, 5 – 8 years (semiconductors, solar cells, MRI contrast agents)
Germanium, 500,000 tonnes (US reserve base), 5 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Gold, 89,700 tonnes, 45 years (jewellery, ‘‘gold-teeth’’)
Hafnium, 1,124 tonnes, 20 years (computer-chips, nuclear control-rods)
Indium, 6,000 tonnes, 13 years (solar-cells and LCDs)
Lead, 144 million tonnes, 42 years (pipes and lead-acid batteries)
Nickel, 143 million tonnes, 90 years (batteries, turbine-blades)
Phosphorus, 49,750 million tonnes, 345 years ( fertilizer, animal feed)
Platinumyrhodium, 79,840 tonnes, 360 years for Pt (jewellery, industrial-catalysts, fuel-cells,
catalytic-converters)
Selenium, 170,000 tonnes, 120 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Silver, 569,000 tonnes, 29 years (jewellery, industrial-catalysts)
Tantalum, 153,000 tonnes, 116 years, (cell-phones, camera-lenses)
Thallium, 650,000 tonnes, 65 years (high temperature superconductors, organic reagents)
Tin, 11.2 million tonnes, 40 years, (cans, solder)
Uranium, 3.3 million tonnes, 59 years (nuclear power-stations and weapons)
Zinc, 460 million tonnes, 46 years (galvanizing)

Table 2 Estimated time in which growth in world population,


along with the emergence of new technologies, could use up
some key metals7

Antimony 15 – 20 years
Gallium 5 years
Hafnium 10 years
Indium 5 – 10 years
Platinum 15 years
Silver 15 – 20 years
Tantalum 20 – 30 years
Uranium 30 – 40 years
Zinc 20 – 30 years

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might prove lucrative and would expand the limited amount of platinum
available, which even now does not meet demand for it. Discarded cell-
phones too, might be a worthwhile source. For metals such as hafnium and
Indium, recycling is the only way to extend the lifetime of critical sectors of
the electronics industry. This is true also of gallium, tellurium and selenium,
since all of them are past their production peak, which forewarns of
imminent potential production shortages and escalating prices. While
recycling of base-metals from scrap is a mature part of an industry worth
$160 billion per year, current efforts to recover and recycle rare-metals are
far less well advanced. However, in view of its present high-price, rhenium is
now recovered from scrap bimetallic catalysts used in the oil refining
industry. I expect to see an expansion of this top-end of the metals market
since rising demand for rare-metals will confer highly lucrative profits. It
might be argued that we will never ‘‘run-out’’ of metals because their atoms
remain intact, but the more dispersion that occurs in converting
concentrated ores into final products, the more difficult and hence energy
intensive it becomes to reclaim those metals in quantity. In a sense, the
problem is the same as deciding which quality of ore to mine in the first
place: we now need to either find richer sources to recycle from or arrange
how we use these materials in the first place to facilitate recycling.
Ultimately, recycling needs to be deliberately designed into an integrated
paradigm of extraction, use and reuse, rather than treating it as an unplanned
consequence.

Stolen catalytic convertors and platinum prices


The price of platinum has just hit $1,722 an ounce9, because of fears that the
major producers of the metal in South Africa will be unable to keep pace
with rising demand for it and that it is seen as an ‘‘investment’’ commodity,
along with gold. Around 40% of ‘‘new’’ platinum, extracted at a rate of close
to 150 tonnes annually, is used for jewellery which is about the same as is
used to make catalytic converters (‘‘cats’’). It is reckoned that scrapping one
million such cats would yield 40,000 ounces of platinum (which works out at
40,000631.10 gyTroy ounce ¼ 1.244 tonnes or 1.244 g per cat, as an
average). It is thought that the worldwide ‘‘scrap-platinum’’ market might
eventually provide 1 million Troy ounces per year, or 31.1 tonnes;
meanwhile, those unwilling to wait have resorted to stealing cats, which we
can reckon to be worth $69 each. Equivalent to £43, this is not quite a
pedigree beast, but since the devices are quite easily stolen from parked cars
(if you know where and how) this is now an increasing phenomenon.
There is a considerable limitation in the rate at which platinum can be
recovered in relation to the amount of it we would need to make fuel cells
for vehicles powered by hydrogen on any significant scale. I have assumed
there are 600 million ‘‘cars’’ on the highways of the world, but this does in

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fact err on the side of caution. At the end of 2004, the figure was closer to
500 million cars and 180 million trucks etc., (up from around 40 million
vehicles altogether in 1945), and 500 million of that total are fitted with cats.
It is less demanding in terms of platinum to make a cat than a fuel cell, since
the latter use up to 100 g of platinum per unit, e.g. that employed by
Daihatsu.
The US based consulting firm TIAX have concluded that world
platinum will not run-out, and certainly if the amount of Pt required in fuel
cells falls (as is claimed, to perhaps one third of the amount currently used,
and there are far more optimistic claims too of about 16%), there would be
enough of it in existing mine-holdings to make those 680 million fuel cells,
but it is a rare metal which is only laboriously wrestled from its ore, usually
over a period of about 6 months. As noted earlier, 80% of world Pt comes
from two mines in SA and most of the rest from another mine in the Urals.
Enhancing new Pt output will be very difficult if not impossible in any
meaningful amount.
It is highly unlikely that we will give-up all our jewellery and we need
the existing cats to keep nitrogen oxide pollutants (NOx) and other traffic
exhaust-emissions within acceptable limits. It is difficult to predict the date of
breakthroughs in research and even more so to predict timelines for their
commercial development. Notwithstanding, I am looking at a period of about
10 years, by when according to almost all estimates we will be past the point
of peak oil production, and oil-supplies worldwide will be down, probably to
90% of current levels, which is really going to hurt our lifestyle.
In this interim of the ‘‘oil dearth era’’, we cannot expect fuel-cells to
help us much, and even if we surrendered half the world’s new platinum
(100 tonnes) plus another 30 tonnes (which would involve taking 24 million
vehicles off the road once their cats had been scrapped) from recycled
platinum, we could introduce an optimistic 1306106 gyday 60 gyvehicle ¼ 2.17
million fuel cells per year. If we could do this starting now, in a 10 year
period, we could have 21.7 million new ‘‘fuel cell’’ cars, but we would have
taken 240 million off the road for their cats. This would leave us with 680 –
240 million ¼ 440 million oil-powered vehicles left (having scrapped their cats
for the Pt they contain, and ignoring those that had been stolen) plus 21.7
million hydrogen-powered cars, making 68%, or two-thirds of the current
number.
Rising fuel prices and shortages of fuel will force that number down
significantly, and in 25 years we would be left with 54 million hydrogen
vehicles, but if the cats are scrapped for their Pt, that will require the loss of
600 million oil-powered vehicles, or most of the current number, leaving us
with just 9% of the current level of car transport power by oil, then
powered by hydrogen. These sums are merely illustrative and are open to
criticism, but I am simply trying to stress the point that the hydrogen
economy, if it could be implemented will provide for less than 10% of
current levels of transportation, while the shortages of oil expected over that

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same 25 years and the inexorably rising monetary and energy costs of its
extraction and processing will force the great majority of current vehicles off
the roads.
In the immediate future (a period of 10 years from now) we can
forget about a hydrogen-based transport infrastructure. While making diesel
from biomass and from algae by so-called second generation processes offers
some hope (and does not compromise food production, unlike first
generation biofuels, which ultimately must do), probably only 15% of current
transport levels can be so maintained. The notion that we can simply
changeover almost overnight to hydrogen, or to anything else on a scale that
will allow us to preserve our current measure of energy profligacy, is simply
wrong. Accordingly, society will begin to reorganise into smaller self-
sustaining communities; if people cannot move around so easily they will stay
where they are, and will need to find a means for living at the local level.
Deconstructing populous cities will be the most testing effort, and may prove
impossible, but the world needs a clear plan of cooperative transformation
and not further war and bloodshed over relentlessly depleting resources.

Agricultural phosphorus shortage made worse by


biofuels?
An old article on the subject of ‘‘peak phosphorus’’ 10 was called to mind
again by a more recent article11. Phosphorus is an essential element in all
living things, from plants to you and me, along with nitrogen and potassium,
known collectively as, P, N, K, in the form of micronutrients that drive
growth. Global demand for phosphate rock is predicted to rise at 2.3% per
year, but this is likely to increase in order to produce biomass for biofuel
production. If the transition is made to cellulosic ethanol as a fuel, because
whole plants are consumed in the process, not merely the seeds, etc., yet
more phosphorus will be required and less of the plant (the ‘‘chaff’’) will be
available to be returned to the soil as plant rubble after the harvest, which is
a traditional and natural provider of K and P. However, the resource of
phosphate rock is in decline, posing a threat to global food production.
Similarly to the well-known Hubbert peak analysis which predicts that
individual oil wells or indeed the global production of oil reaches a maximum,
beyond which it declines relentlessly, a similar function can be fitted to world
phosphate production10. The method can be adapted in terms of the
Hubbert linearization, which was used recently to predict that only around
half the proven world coal reserve (903 Gt) will actually be extractable at
some 435 Gt12. This involves plotting the annual production (P) divided by
total production to date (Q), i.e. the ratio, (PyQ), against total (cumulative)
production to date (Q), yielding an intercept on the x-axis which
corresponds to the ultimate recoverable reserve.

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The result indicates that the peak for phosphate production happened
in the US in 1988 and for the world in 1989. The really telling aspect of the
article is the inclusion of a plot of world oil production versus world
population, for which the two quantities can be seen to follow one another
closely. The conclusion is that we literally eat oil, since it underpins almost
all agriculture, certainly in the developed nations, but also N and P, as
required by the Green Revolution, which has preserved us from a Malthusian
die-off scenario – so far, at least. Population has only grown as it has because
of cheap phosphate deposits and cheap energy to produce the mineral and to
get it onto farms around the world. The timing of the production peak for
phosphorus has been challenged by another analysis which instead predicts
that it will occur in 203411. In analogy with the peaks for oil production in
the 1970s, it is concluded that the observed peak at the end of the 1980s
was not a true maximum production peak, and was instead a consequence of
political factors such as the collapse of the Former Soviet Union and a
decreased demand for fertilizer in Western Europe11. In any event, it is clear
that the reserve of phosphate rock will at some point fail demand for it and
without an alternative source of phosphorus fertilizer humanity will begin to
starve, let alone produce biofuels.
In contrast to fossil fuels, say, phosphorus can be recycled, but if
phosphorus is wasted, there is no substitute for it. The evidence is that the
world is using up its relatively limited supplies of phosphates in concentrated
form. In Asia, agriculture has been enabled through returning animal and
human manure to the soil, for example in the form of sewage sludge, and it
is suggested that by the use of composting toilets, urine diversion, more
efficient ways of using fertilizer and more efficient technology, the potential
problem of phosphorus depletion might be circumvented. It all seems to add
up to the same thing, that we will need to use less and more efficiently,
whether that be fossil resources, or food products, including our own human
waste. We are all bound on this planet and depend mutually on the various
provisions of her. There are now so many of us that we will be unable to
maintain current global profligacy. In the form of localised communities as
the global village will devolve into by the inevitable reduction in
transportation, such strategies would seem sensible to food production at the
local level. ‘‘Small is beautiful’’ as Schumacher wrote those many years ago,
emphasising a system of ‘‘economics as if people mattered’’ 13.

Running low on gas


Helium is a remarkable material, with some unique properties, especially in
liquid form in which it is used as a coolant, for example to run
superconducting magnets inter alia in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging; the
safer alternative to X-ray body scanners) applications. It is also used as a
blanket-gas to shield sensitive materials from atmospheric oxygen, and enable

332 Progress in Science


certain chemical reactions to be performed, and in specialist welding
operations in which the weld is stronger when the metal surface has not
been exposed to reactive atmospheric gases. Helium finds further application
in gas-cooled nuclear reactors, as a heat-transfer agent.
Most of the world’s helium is found in the USA, and it is recovered
by separating it from natural gas with which it is coincident. Helium arises
from the decay of radioactive elements like thorium and uranium, whose
atomic nuclei decay with the emission of alpha-particles – helium nuclei – which
form elemental helium by capturing a couple of electrons from their
surrounding media. The majority of helium, since it is a material of low mass,
simply rises into the atmosphere and is driven from the Earth’s gravitational
field by the Solar-wind to dissipate into outer-space, but some of it becomes
trapped in the rocky formations of gas-wells, from which it may be
recovered in concentrations of up to 7%14.
As is the case for all fossil-materials, natural gas was laid-down in long
times past and we will eventually use it up, especially against current rising
demand for it. It is the same story for oil, ultimately coal, and indeed
uranium, so most of our current energy production methods are living on
borrowed time. Helium is also a fossil material, but it can be recycled, as I
recall from working at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, which
uses huge amounts of liquid helium to cool the vast array of magnets used to
steer beams of charged particles, particularly muons, toward particular
experimental arrangements. At PSI, the helium is recovered and liquefied on
site so it can be recycled, since it is a comparatively expensive substance, and
another recollection about it is that it diffuses through the steel walls of
cylinders in which it is stored under high pressure. If you get a new helium
cylinder and don’t use it for say, 6 months, when you attach the pressure
valve, about half of it has gone!
While the world would certainly not grind to a complete halt if all its
particle physics institutes had to close-down in the absence of helium,
modern medicine would be disadvantaged and need to return to using X-rays
as a means to ‘‘photograph’’ the inside of human bodies as in the CT-scanner
alternatives to MRI. If we run short of natural gas, however, the world won’t
run on with this fact largely unnoticed, and peak gas looks to hit at around
202515 . . . a mere 10 years time, and more and more of it is used each
year, along with all other sources to slake a dust-dry thirst for energy.

www.scienceprogress.co.uk Progress in Science 333


References
1. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/
science-and-technology-committee/news/110517-sims-report-published/
2. Davis, E. (2011) Critical Thinking.
http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2011/January/CriticalThinking.asp
3. Inman, M. (2011) Going ‘‘all the way’’ with renewable energy?
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2011/01/110117-100-percent-
renewable-energy/
4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14009910
5. Hubbert, M.K. (1956) Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels. Spring meeting of the
Southern District, American Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas,
March 7 – 9.
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