11 January 2010

Resource Scarcity vs. Human Ingenuity

Humans have been quite adept at finding solutions to the problem of scarce natural resources: finding more abundant substitutes for various natural resources, exploration for and discovery of new reserves, recovery and recycling of materials, and, perhaps most importantly, the development of new technologies that economize on scarce natural resources or that allow the use of resources that were previously uneconomical. _Krautkraemer2005PDF

Predictions of resource scarcity and accompanying doom have become common among late 20th and early 21st century pseudo-intelligentsia. And yet predictions of doom with fixed due dates invariably fail.
In 1980, Julian Simon, the recently deceased economist and author of The Ultimate Resource, offered to environmentalists a wager based on his assertion that the price of any raw material would indefinitely decline on a future date. The wager was taken up by Paul Ehrlich, author of the best- selling 1968 book, "The Population Bomb," which predicted that during the 1970s "the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death...

"In October 1980, Ehrilch and Simon drew up a futures contract obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich the same quantities which could be purchased for $1,000 of five metals (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten) ten years later as 1980 prices," writes Ronald Bailey in his book EcoScam. "If the combined prices rose above $1,000, Simon would pay the difference. If they fell below $1,000, Ehrlich would pay Simon. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07 in October 1990." During the 1980s the combined prices of the metals selected by Ehrlich declined by over 50 percent. Simon easily won because he knew that the supply for resources was not becoming more scarce but more abundant, since the economic history of predominantly free capitalist nations had demonstrated how the prices of most major commodities have declined over time.

While Simon was proven correct, Ehrlich went on to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant -- based on his career of fantastic apocalyptic predictions that never came true. _Capmag

Human ingenuity in the face of resource scarcity is an old story, dating back many tens of thousands of years, at least. A fascinating ongoing chapter in this story involves a fantastic new field of chemistry that is enticingly close to "alchemy":
According to the authors of the paper, it is possible to mimic certain properties of precious metals as platinum and palladium using combinations of far more mundane materials. And that opens up the prospect of replacing expensive strategic metals in many industrial applications by much cheaper alternatives.

...Now the team is working its way across the big central block of the Periodic Table, consisting of so-called transition metals from scandium – used in aerospace alloys – to gold. Their aim is to discover other superatoms, and to gauge the extent of their similarities to standard atoms.

Not surprisingly in view of the commercial implications of success, the Penn State team is not alone in its quest. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University recently announced that a cluster of eight caesium atoms plus a vanadium atom mimic the magnetic strength of manganese. The research team has also predicted that superatoms of gold and manganese will be magnetic while not conducting electricity – a combination making them useful in some biomedical applications.

Such discoveries suggest we are witnessing the birth of a whole new branch of chemistry, and one that could not have arrived at a better time – for many critical technologies are crying out for a breakthrough in material science. _TheNational

Julian Simon's book, "The Ultimate Resource 2:People, Materials, and Environment" is free online and worth a look.

A look at "The Ingenuity Gap"

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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