Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chips need rare metals, economies need precise prices


Chips need rare metals, economies need precise prices
Dwindling of Rare Metals Imperils Innovation

Scientists keep finding better ways to make the gizmos we like, but more and more of us like them, buy them, and deplete the reserves of the rare metals that go into them. Are we between a rock and a hard place? It might not be so bleak as some prognosticators think - if we start recycling now. But how could recycling compete with mining?
by Jeffery J. Smith
June, 2007

We’re using up the ingredients for our favorite hi-tech devices. Without these key components, we could not make anything from cell phones to solar panels. The stuff we put into liquid-crystal displays – indium – and plan to turn into next-generation semiconductors – hafnium – might no longer be found in nature by 2017 (InformationWeek, 29 May 2007).

David Cohen writes in his audit of "Earth's natural wealth" that reserves of elements from:

* platinum (used in cars’ catalytic converter and in fuel cells) to
* indium (used in flat-screen TVs and computer monitors) and
* tantalum (used in mobile phones)

are "being used up at an alarming rate." These are elements; unless Merlin figures out how, we can not synthetize any substitute substance.

As India and China and other rapidly developing economies consume more common metals like zinc and copper, even those once plentiful supplies dwindle. Over the last year as the price of copper soared, so have thefts of copper from power lines and electrical substations. Some predict the world's zinc will be gone by 2037.

These shortages could hinder the development of more efficient solar panels. At a time when our world is getting low on oil and hot from burning fossil fuels like coal, better solar panels could come in handy. Without them, China would resort to burning its millions of tons coal; already on America’s Pacific coast, 10% of the air pollution is from Chinese factories and powerplants.

People who estimate these reserves disagree widely. Yet whoever’s right, some day we must deplete them. As we do, we provide yet another reason why Moore's Second Law – the cost of developing new and more complex chips increases geometrically – is true. (via reader Stewart Goldwater).

However, while it’s good for worriers to have another problem to worry about, the alarm was not raised by a recycler. Each year, America throws away as much metal as it consumes. Logically, for at least one year, America need not mine one new ton of ore – if we recycle.

Why don’t we recycle now? The expense. Why is it cheaper to dig up ores – and pile up broken and worn out electronic devices in landfills – than to leave land alone and recycle valuable parts and ingredients? The answer is not mere convenience. Mining is not easier than recycling. And it’s not consumer preference. Buyers don’t know if the metal in their laptop used to be in an ancient desktop or recently under tons of cubic earth.

The answer is politics. Modern, efficient recycling costs more than wasteful mining as a byproduct of entrenched policy. As a hangover from the century before last, we favor mining corporations, specifically with taxes and subsidies.

Who wouldn't want to be a prospector given these breaks?

* To claim the public land which harbors precious ore, they get to pay the same number of pennies per acre that they paid back in 1872.
* What do we charge them for despoiling the land and leaving behind waste (called “tailings”)? Anything from little to nothing.

* What size of tax write-off do we offer for using heavy equipment? Heavy ones. What size for hiring workers to do things like take apart old TVs? None.

Get the picture? When you pay taxes that become subsidies, you buy the most effective way to run out of rare metals. So, if you want to reuse the ingredients in old computer monitors, what should you do? Reverse public policy. Make people pay taxes for what they take, not for what they make.

And let people get a share of the value of nature. Spreading the natural wealth around, more people could invest their money where their heart tells them – for “greens”, into recycling. And getting an income supplement, more people could afford to take off time to advance their own ideas, like a better way to recycle or an alternative to a basic ingredient.

Sure, feel alarmed that our appetite for rare metals roars undiminished. But realize there is something we can do. Correct prices by correcting taxes and subsidies – a new policy called geonomics.


Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.



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