Stories tagged resources

Mar
04
2011

This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...

Here's Bryan's comment:

I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.

Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?

How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?

How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?

Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.
Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.Courtesy US Government

And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.

Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.
Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.Courtesy Matthew Baugh

It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.

And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.

Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.
Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.Courtesy Ivy Main

I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?

Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?
Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?Courtesy Clementina

Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?

I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?

For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.

Oct
07
2010

A bright future: We will all be armed skeletons, sitting on big piles of minerals. That's how I like to see it, anyway.
A bright future: We will all be armed skeletons, sitting on big piles of minerals. That's how I like to see it, anyway.Courtesy bredgur
According to a report in the journal Mineralium Deposita, there’s really no need for people to fight over mineral resources, because there are lots and lots of them left.

The report comes hot on the heals of a political snafu, in which a Chinese fisherman ran afoul of the Japanese coastguard, and China cut off shipments of rare earth metals to Japan, after the fisherman was arrested. Rare earth metals are vital for building electronics and hybrid electric cars, and China pretty much has most of the rare earth metals in town, so China was all, “You want your cars? Give us our fisherman.” Then Japan was like, “Oh, well, actually we can make hybrid cars without your stupid rare earth metals, so whatever.”

And everybody else started smacking their lunch trays on the tables and shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

But then Japan was like, “Fine. Just take your stupid fisherman. He’s a jerk anyway.” And China was like, “Fine, then!” And everything went back to normal. But it left the world thinking, are we going to have to tussle over stuff like this eventually? Everyone wants minerals, and we might be running out…

Not so, says Lawrence Cathles of Cornell University. We have lots of minerals, more than we could use in thousands of years, even with the whole world living at Western European material standards.

Aw, man. What can we fight about now? I suppose there’s always country and rock ‘n roll. Or we could all split up into Sharks and Jets. We could maybe start randomly accusing each other of cheating at Monopoly, regardless of whether or not we’ve been playing Monopoly.

But… I just can’t get worked up over that stuff. If I can’t throw down over a chunk of copper, or a pocketful of palladium, I don’t know that I even want to fight. Oh well. I might as well just finish reading that article…

So let’s see. The minerals Cathles is talking about come from the ocean floor. At points where the Earth’s crust is pulling apart, molten rock meets ocean water, infusing it with minerals and heating it. The hot seawater rises through the crust, and deposits precipitating minerals on the ocean floor. Lots and lots of copper, uranium, lithium, phosphate, potash, and on and on… all waiting for us in deposits on the ocean floor. A small percentage of the minerals that should be hiding out down there could keep humanity going for “50 centuries or more.”

Sweet! But… wait a second. Didn’t it just say that the minerals are sitting on the bottom of the oceans? Where the tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, areas one might refer to as “ocean spreading centers.” Sooooo… the minerals are under the middle of the oceans.

Yes! We’re going to have something to fight over after all!

See, I think y’all remember what can happen when you’re trying to get at something on the bottom of the ocean… this sort of thing. And the depths of mid-ocean ridges are nothing to sneeze at. But deep sea oil drilling operations might be a good junior-league analogy for mid-ocean mining—it’s expensive and potentially extremely dangerous, but once we want that resource enough, we’re going to give it a shot. And once we do, that (fortunately!!!) won’t be the end of conflict over the resource. Drilling or mining areas will be disputed, as will environmental liabilities.

I mean, what do I know about it. But when has having enough of something for everybody ever kept people from being upset about it?

I find this to be a very hopeful report. Someday—maybe not soon, but someday—we’ll engage in high-tech, high risk, deepwater mining in international waters. And there will be fighting! Lots of fighting!

Aug
31
2010

This kid is sitting on a fortune!: That balloon will put him through college, assuming he doesn't blow it all first on candy and blackjack.
This kid is sitting on a fortune!: That balloon will put him through college, assuming he doesn't blow it all first on candy and blackjack.Courtesy Lars Plougmann
Y’all ever see Mad Max? Or Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior? Or even Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome?

Some of you surely have, and I salute you. For the rest of you, the short description is this: a handsome young Australian actor, who we should just assume is now dead, played a lone wanderer, drifting across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. During the course of his adventures, he meets Tina turner, a really weird looking pilot (twice?!), a grunting, boomerang-throwing feral child, a man named Toe-cutter, and an awesome giant/little person team (sort of like Jordan and Pippen, but more inclined towards stranglings). It’s all very exciting! But the most important part of the Mad Max trilogy is this: he lives in a world without gas. Everybody was so busy blowing each other up that they forgot to be careful with their oil, so by the time Max rolls around, people are freaking out trying to get a few more drops of “the precious juice” for their dune buggies and flame throwers.

And so we come to our news item, and this afternoon’s future-dread focus: helium. If you look at the Mad Max summary and pretend “gas” refers to helium gas instead of gasoline, and if you replace “dune buggies” with “scanning equipment,” and “flame throwers” with “party balloons,” it’s a pretty decent analogy.

See, we’re running out of helium. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

The above statement brings to mind two points (at least for me):
1) No we aren’t. Shut up.; and
2) Even if we are running out of helium, who cares? I can fill up my party balloons with air, or Cheesewhiz, or something.

If you read the article linked to above (or one of the many articles on the subject that came out last week), you’ll find that the answer to point 1 is, yeah, we kinda are, and the answer to point 2 is, it’ll be sad to see floating party balloons go, but they’re the least of our problems. It’s all dune buggies and flame throwers from here on out.

The problem is that helium is non-renewable. We talk about oil being non-renewable, but helium is even more non-renewable. See, helium only comes from fusion reactions (hydrogen atoms slamming together to form heavier helium), or from radioactive decay (heavier elements breaking apart at the atomic level to form lighter helium). Hydrogen fusion only happens in stars (scientists are trying to replicate it as an awesome source of nuclear energy, but don’t hold your breath), so all of the helium on our planet comes from underground, where gases from radioactive decay have become trapped.

We’ve got a nice big planet here, and we’ve got lots of helium, but we’ve just been farting it away, and once helium is released into the atmosphere, it’s gone to us for good. And we’re currently farting away helium at such a tremendous rate that the gas could be all but unavailable within a couple generations. The reason for this is that it’s actually official policy to fart away helium. (More or less.)

A huge portion of the world’s helium has been mined from the American Southwest, and for a long time we were actually pretty good at storing it—we pumped it back underground into a huge system of old mines, pipes and vats near Amarillo, Texas, in a facility called the US National Helium Reserve. We stored the helium because it was strategically useful to the country—it was vital for rocket operation during the Cold War. But in 1996, a law was passed requiring the helium to be sold off, all of it, and by 2015. I’m not totally clear on the reason for the law. I suppose the idea was that the Cold War was over, and by selling the helium, the US National Helium Reserve could be paid for (sort of a Gift of the Magi kinda thing, but whatever.) Congress, however, decided that the price of the sold helium would remain the same until it was all gone, so even as available helium became scarce, it would never be more expensive.

This broke the law of supply and demand, and having this vast, vast supply of helium go on sale for cheap meant that all the helium in the world had to be cheap too. Helium has become so cheap, in fact, that there’s no economic incentive for recycling it—recapturing it after use is so much more expensive than just buying new helium, people have just been letting the used helium drift away, where we’ll never be able to reclaim it. Normally, when a resource becomes more scarce, its price will go up, and people will be better about using it. (For an example, see gas prices and fuel efficiency in cars.) Not so with helium, thanks to that 1996 law. And pretty soon, say some scientists, we’ll be running out of the precious gas.

The “precious” part is there because helium is useful for a lot more than party balloons. (Although they’re ok too.) The properties of helium make it an excellent coolant for medical scanning equipment, and the sort of detectors used in super colliders. It’s also used in telescopes, diving equipment, rockets (NASA is a huge user—and waster—of helium), fusion research, and airships. (And don’t laugh about that last one—as the price of fuel goes up, the prospect of eventually moving cargo with lighter-than-air aircraft, like blimps and zeppelins, is becoming more likely. And hydrogen is a little bit too explodey to be a great alternative lifting gas.)

Helium is so desired, and is being wasted at such a rapid rate, claims Robert Richardson (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, whose research was on helium), that a single helium-filled party balloon ought to cost about $100.

That’s right: $100. It’s that, or we keep going until there’s no helium left. And then... it’s Thunderdome. You know the rules—there are none.

How do you get started on the internet looking for science information? I jump on Google and get searching. But this can cause you to miss a ton of great science resources that are invisible to the search engine. Too dig a little deeper check out the Online Educational Database's Research Beyond Google -- science resources for some stuff you won't see on Google.