Sunday, July 06, 2008

Welcome to the 21st Century

As I have stated many times, the 21st century will be defined by environmental crisis. One aspect of that crisis is the disappearance of several elements from human use because of their essential extinction. They don't disappear, but there aren't any more of them to be used. And this is happening very fast. Devilstower links to this Robert Silverberg article on the disappearance of gallium and other key elements. What the heck is gallium? It is a key element in the making of many modern products, including computers.

Gallium’s atomic number is 31. It’s a blue-white metal first discovered in
1831, and has certain unusual properties, like a very low melting point and an
unwillingness to oxidize, that make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors,
a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in
ultraviolet lamps. It’s also quite important in making the liquid-crystal
displays used in flat-screen television sets and computer monitors.

As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and
computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of
the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by
extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace
flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use. Indium,
another endangered element—number 49 in the periodic table—is similar to gallium
in many ways, has many of the same uses (plus some others—it’s a gasoline
additive, for example, and a component of the control rods used in nuclear
reactors) and is being consumed much faster than we are finding it. Dr. Reller
gives it about another decade. Hafnium, element 72, is in only slightly better
shape. There aren’t any hafnium mines around; it lurks hidden in minute
quantities in minerals that contain zirconium, from which it is extracted by a
complicated process that would take me three or four pages to explain. We use a
lot of it in computer chips and, like indium, in the control rods of nuclear
reactors, but the problem is that we don’t have a lot of it. Dr. Reller thinks
it’ll be gone somewhere around 2017. Even zinc, commonplace old zinc that is
alloyed with copper to make brass, and which the United States used for ordinary
one-cent coins when copper was in short supply in World War II, has a Reller
extinction date of 2037. (How does a novel called The Death of Brass grab

What can be done about this? Very little. The decline of an oil-based economy and what I increasingly see as the end days of globalization may cut the demands for products, but not until those products are either prohibitively expensive because the elements to make them are so rare or gone altogether. It is very depressing because I really foresee the rolling back of much material and human progress. It is just not sustainable. You can't create more zinc, more oil, or more water. We really may be seeing the last decades of human material growth. What kind of decline that causes in medicine, life span, nutrition, and environmental protection, not to mention luxuries like travel and computers, remains to be seen.