Limitations on Metals Not Usually Addressed by Cleantech

This article on LiveScience comments on an area that we do not discuss that often in the Cleantech world, but gets more attention in sustainability discussions: namely that the base raw materials that we use are running down, as well as our fossil fuel energy sources.

The Live Science.com article primarily quoted a Yale University study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The statistic in the article that I found most intriguing:

“According to the study, all of the copper in ore, plus all of the copper currently in use, would be required to bring the world to the level of the developed nations for power transmission, construction and other services and products that depend on the metal.”

A couple of comments on metals use reduction:

I’m not entirely sure how our world can reach true sustainability long term without running down inventory stocks of metals to some degree, but we should be able to flatten the decline curve.

I would think that energy efficiency can have some impact on reducing metals use, all the way back down the supply chain. But it is a bit unclear to me how much. As a side note on that, I ran across a new group today, a nonprofit in Oakland called FootprintNetwork.org. Their mandate is analyzing the environmental footprint of businesses, regions, and organizations.

I would think switching fuel sources can sometimes reduce metals on a life cycle basis, when you are switching to a source like photovoltaics, where the materials input/watt produced is much lower than say, a diesel engine and all the fuel, supply chain, manufacturing and production requirements. But the calculation to estimate that is not a simple one.

Superconductor wire technology, like our blogger Mark Bitterman from Superconductor Week has written on before, with tremendously higher efficiencies, is a direct replacement for copper, and uses far less materials, but is not ready for prime time yet. You can find additional blog commentary on HTS and superconductor impact on James Fraser’s The Energy Blog.

Of course, the main area of impact from our daily lives is the sustainability mantra: reduce, recycle, reuse.

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