When you really need something, it's natural to worry about running out of it. Peak oil, the notion that global petroleum production will top out and then begin to decline permanently, has been a global preoccupation since the 1970s, and the warnings get louder with each passing year. Environmentalists want to put limits on the consumption of fossil fuels, but they haven't been very successful in encouraging people to consume less energy, even with the force of law at their backs.
But maybe they're going about it all wrong, looking for solutions in the wrong places. Lucas Bretschger, an economist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Sjak Smulders, an economist at Tillburg University, argue that we shouldn't focus directly on preserving the resources we already have. In a 2003 article for the Italian think tank Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, they instead ask, "Is it realistic to predict that knowledge accumulation is so powerful as to outweigh the physical limits of physical capital services and the limited substitution possibilities for natural resources?" In other words, can increases in scientific knowledge and technological innovation overcome any limitations on economic growth imposed by the depletion of nonrenewable resources?
The debate over peak oil is heavily politicized, so let's set it aside and test the idea of imminent resource peaks and their consequences for economic growth on three other nonrenewable resources: lithium, neodymium, and phosphorus.
Peak lithium. Lithium is the element at the heart of the electric car revolution that green energy enthusiasts are trying so hard to foment. For example, the Chevy Volt, scheduled to be at dealers this fall, will be energized by 400 pounds of lithium-ion batteries, plus a gasoline engine to produce electricity to extend the car's range of travel once the batteries are drained.
In 2007 William Tahil, an analyst with the France-based consultancy Meridian International Research, issued a report that concluded there is "insufficient economically recoverable lithium available in the Earth's crust to sustain electric vehicle manufacture in the volumes required." Tahil added, "Depletion rates would exceed current oil depletion rates and switch dependency from one diminishing resource to another."
Not everyone agrees with Tahil's peak lithium prognostications. Geologist R. Keith Evans, who has long been involved in the lithium industry, issued a rebuttal arguing that lithium resources are much higher than estimated by Tahil. Evans also asserts that as prices rise other sources of lithium will become economical. And lithium prices have indeed been increasing. But for the sake of argument, let's assume we are "running out" of lithium. Then what?
Even Tahil's original report noted that there were alternative battery technologies in the works, approaches to use more common substances instead of lithium. The Swiss company ReVolt Technology, for example, is developing rechargeable zinc-air batteries that hold four times as much charge as lithium-ion batteries and cost half as much. Fluidic Energy a tech startup in Arizona, claims it can develop a metal-air battery that will hold 11 times the charge of the best lithium-ion batteries for less than a third of the cost. A car running on such batteries would have a range of 400 to 500 miles on a single charge. In addition to being far more available, the materials could be fairly easily recycled.
Peak neodymium. Neodymium is a rare-earth metal used extensively to produce permanent magnets found in everything from computer magnetic disk drives and cell phones to wind turbines and automobiles. The magnets that drive a Prius hybrid's electric motor use more than two pounds of neodymium. Neodymium magnets were invented in the 1980s in response to the global cobalt supply shock that occurred as a result of internal warfare in Zaire. Because China can produce the material more cheaply than any other country in the world, that nation is now the source of 95 percent of the world's neodymium. China's government recently warned that it would begin restricting exports of neodymium and other rare-earth metals to ensure supplies for its own manufacturers.
In March, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced the Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation (RESTART) Act of 2010. The RESTART Act would offer federal loan guarantees to mining and refining companies to recreate in five years a domestic rare-earth minerals industry, achieving a kind of rare-earth minerals independence.
But there are alternatives to industrial policy. If neodymium supplies really are a problem, there may be a technical fix. For example, Chorus Motors has invented and developed an improved AC induction motor that supplies the energy needed to accelerate hybrid or electric vehicles without neodymium magnets. If this technology is widely adopted, it would free up neodymium supplies for other uses and reduce the metal's price.
Peak phosphorus. In the 1840s, scientists discovered that plants need the element phosphorus to grow. The phosphorus fertilizer industry grew rapidly, at first by exploiting vast deposits of seabird guano left on oceanic islands. Today phosphate rocks are mined to produce the fertilizer, which is essential to modern agriculture. According to Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI), a collaboration between independent research institutes in Europe, Australia, and North America, known phosphorus reserves could be depleted within the next 50 to 100 years. The April 2010 issue of Foreign Policy ominously warned that failing to meet the challenge of "peak phosphorus" would mean that "humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced."
But unlike petroleum or natural gas, phosphorus, an element, is not destroyed when it's used. So it could be recovered and recycled. The GPRI points out that the phosphorus in just one person's urine would be close to the amount needed to fertilize the food supply for one person. So why not recycle urine?
NoMix toilets keep urine separate from solid wastes, allowing phosphorus and nitrogen to be recovered and used as fertilizer. Furthermore, biotechnologists are exploring ways to dramatically increase the efficiency with which crops use phosphorus, which would reduce the amount of fertilizer needed to grow a given amount of food.
"Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered," the Stanford economist Paul Romer writes in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. "And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply." The production of some physical resources may peak, but there is no sign that human creativity is about to do anything of the kind.
Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey (email@example.com) is the author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus).