Top 4: Rare Materials

Critical Resource Supply Limits

The world may run out of materials which we once took for granted.

An inflatable pink helium pig balloon flies above Battersea Power Station in London September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

It is a much-lamented fact of life that good things are often in short supply.

“There isn’t enough of anything in this world to go around. Not enough food, not enough love,
not enough justice, and never enough time,” Robert McKee, the American author, famously observed.

Even those things that we take for granted are in shorter supply than we might guess. And, if we are not careful, our limited resources may dry up soon.

The fast-growing electric vehicles industry, for example, relies on lithium for the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries. But, the element is truly scarce—with limited reserves in Bolivia and Chile—which creates something of a bottleneck for the EV industry.

Similarly, phosphates, which are a principal ingredient in fertilizers and help feed the world, can only be found in limited quantities in Morocco—a shortage that has been troubling agricultural policymakers for ages.

Below, we have listed four other seemingly mundane materials of which the world simply does not have enough.

1: Rare earth metals

Rare elements are a set of 17 metals, and as the name implies are extremely difficult to come by.

Rare earth metals are needed—albeit in modest quantities—for the production of electronic chips used in smartphones and computers. This is why the Japanese refer to rare metals as “the seeds of technology.”

Some cellphones contain a trace amount of all seventeen known rare metals in their components. Our telecoms infrastructure relies on one rare element in particular: erbium. Thanks to its unique optical properties, erbium is used in optical fibers which crisscross the globe, increasing connectivity.

Some sustainable technologies such as electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels also depend on rare metals.

China currently has the upper hand in the export of all rare earth metals, including erbium. In 2018, China raised its output of rare earth materials to over 120,000 million tons, followed by Australia and the US, which produced 10-20 percent of that amount.

2: Helium

No matter how you look at it, helium should not have been a rare element. It has a really simple atomic structure comprised of two electrons orbiting a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons.

In addition to huge amounts left over from the Big Bang, helium is gradually generated through a process called hydrogen fusion in stars.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. But, unfortunately, it is not readily available in the earth’s atmosphere. Only 0.0005% of the earth’s atmosphere is formed of helium.

However, the gas is often in demand not only its application in research laboratories, medical scanning, and military projects, but also in less serious enterprises such as the inflation of balloons and their inhalation by pranksters to adopt a comedic high-pitched voice.

The supply of helium fails to keep up with the growing demand in the market. Citing industry insiders, the New York Times reported in 2019 that we are currently experiencing “the third global helium shortage in the past 14 years.”

With a market share of 90%, the US dominates the global helium market, but businesses which depend on helium are increasingly complaining about suppliers letting them down, which means plenty of money could be made by developing alternative methods for the production of helium.

3 and 4: Sand and Soil

It is estimated that unsustainable farming practices over the last 150 years have rendered nearly 50% of the world’s topsoil useless. And, the remaining half is routinely washed away by floods or damaged by the misapplication of fertilizers and pesticides.

Given the fact that up to 95% of our foodstuffs are either grown on soil—or fed by things that grow on soil—the erosion of arable soil is a threat to our very existence.

Some officials at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believe that we may be just over 50 years away from the complete degradation of the earth’s topsoil and the unhappy realization that we have nothing to eat anymore.

Rather unbelievably, the world is also running out of sand. The shortage will make more sense when we realize that sand is the main bulking agent in concrete and it is used in copious quantities in the construction of buildings, roads, and highways.

Simply put, the modern world, with its countless skyscrapers and roads, is built upon sand.

The demand for sand—which exceeds 50 billion tons per year—has created a global sand trade. Currently, the US is the world’s largest sand exporter (USD531 million in 2018), followed by the Netherlands (USD201 million), and Germany (USD148 million).

Unlike rare earth metals and helium, soil and sand are not elements, and therefore, can be regenerated by natural and artificial means. However, the regeneration of soil sand is a very slow process, and their shortage poses a more imminent threat than that of rare metals and helium.

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