Hacker News

Animats said 3 months ago:

The USGS produces annual reports for each mineral the US uses.[1] This is a lot of material, but it's all online. The rare earths report shows prices declining since 2014.[2] The rare earths aren't really that rare, just found at low concentrations.

Helium, though...

On the scale of a century, though, the reserves don't look that good. Some metals used in bulk, like copper and zinc, don't look so great. Remember that really high volume mining is less than a century old.

[1] https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nmic/commodity-statistics-and-i...

[2] https://prd-wret.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets/palladium...

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

Copper is highly recyclable. The risk of high copper prices is that it becomes a little too recycleable, and criminals destroy your infrastructure in order to sell it for scrap.

glaurung_ said 3 months ago:

I suspect that in the not too distant future (perhaps in my lifetime) there will be companies buying up landfills in order to mine them for recyclable materials.

AnimalMuppet said 3 months ago:

And isn't it helpful of us to have concentrated the recyclable materials in a few locations?

cosmodisk said 3 months ago:

The future is now!:) Google landfill mining, there are companies that already do it.

sixhobbits said 3 months ago:

Exactly this is already a major problem in South Africa.

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

"Shortfall of dysprosium are expected before 2015." - so how's that going? I don't see news reports of DYSPROSIUM CRISIS. I did find one on a new mine opening in Australia.

Articles like this belong in a "manufactured crisis" category. Very little in it is false per se, but the overall impression it creates is misleading, and is likely to be driven by either nationalism trying to upsell conflict with China, or miners trying to sell investments outside of China that are currently uncompetitive.

voqv said 3 months ago:

Same author in 2012: "Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to power electric cars." And China now [https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-14/china-is-...]

Still, even the thought of a collapse for chips is scary. I wonder if we can at least fallback to 80-s chips production in case of a supply chain collapse.

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

Chip shortages happen every now and again. I remember at least two due to shortages of a particular kind of epoxy resin:

2011 https://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1258963 " "This is an unfortunate coincidence where 90-100 percent of the world's supply of bismaleimide triazine is made in northeastern Japan,"

1993 https://apnews.com/8fe2925b68d34d33f19a53e4892c74a2 "epoxy resin has been the talk of the computer chip business for the past month after an explosion destroyed a Japanese factory that made 60 percent of the world’s supply."

> if we can at least fallback to 80-s chips production in case of a supply chain collapse.

Not literally, most of the 80s US chip manufacturing sites are Superfund sites now.

Tade0 said 3 months ago:

There's something better on the horizon:


Also regular vacuum tubes are still pretty competent for power applications.

Making a switching power supply might be a challenge though - we would have to return to using Thyratrons which contain mercury vapour.

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

The nanoscale vacuum transistor is still a silicon device - part of the point of it is that it can be produced in a conventional fab!

Power diodes are not going to be a problem, they are a comparatively crude device from the 50s.

diydsp said 3 months ago:
marcus_holmes said 3 months ago:

Someone pointed out the differences between "ecological" and "economical" thinking years ago, and I wish I could find the blog article again.

The basis was that "ecological" thinking assumes that things will stay the same until they dramatically collapse, and that systems cannot adapt to changes in circumstances.

While "economical" thinking assumes that there is a constant tension between supply and demand, and that as something becomes rare its price goes up and the system adapts to it.

This paper is classic "ecological" thinking. It assumes that there are no other alternatives to the minerals used at the moment, and that therefore if the supply of (e.g.) Cerium is disrupted then the supply of iPhones will be disrupted. It doesn't allow for "Cerium was the best of three options we had, because of reasons x and y, and price z", so if Cerium becomes a problem, then the second best option will be used instead. Yes, the price will go up, but that's an adaptation not a limit.

It also doesn't allow for alternative sources of the minerals. I know there are deposits of rare earths in Australia, which aren't being mined at the moment because it's not economical to do so. But if China starts messing with their supply, it will become economical. This happens all the time (there's a rash of new Lithium and Cobalt mines in Australia because of the tech industry's need for them).

Likewise it assumes that because we currently have cheap fossil-fuel-derived energy to mine with, that mining is not possible without abundant cheap energy. If the price of energy goes up as the coal mines are shut down, then the industry will adapt and find other, more energy-efficient solutions.

Just as "life finds a way", economic systems find a way. Yes, there will be collapses and corrections, and on an individual level those can be disastrous, but as a system it endures. High tech is going to last.

throwaway13337 said 3 months ago:

This is the correct way of thinking to move forward.

Humanity will have a large effect on our environment. Period. A static ecosystem didn't exist without us and it certainly doesn't exist with us.

Embracing that we have an effect and choosing to improve our environment rather than to get it back to some idealized past is the only way we can have a future.

It's too bad, then, that most of ecological thinking, as you've described, is so pervasive.

Interestingly, this thinking is really embedded in our fiction. Garden of Eden type stuff is very common. Tolkien's world also follows the idealized past trope. It might be part of a sort of jungian collective unconscious. I wonder what works exist that tell a different story trope - one aligned more with the economical way of thinking.

perfunctory said 3 months ago:

> This is the correct way of thinking to move forward.

I guess it depends. In case of rare earth elements supply problems we will just skip the next iPhone upgrade cycle, wait until supply chain readjusts and buy the next iPhone version a couple of years later. No big deal. This cannot be said about all (eco)systems.

Just to take a random example - Aral Sea [0].

"The Aral Sea is considered an example of ecosystem collapse."

"...As a result, the land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. All of this has resulted in an unusually high fatality rate among vulnerable parts of the population: the child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns, and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women."

And these people cannot just "adapt to changes" and move to new territories, because somebody is standing on the border with a gun. Tell them that "economic" thinking is the way "to move forward".

All I am trying to say it's not so black and white.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_Sea

gbear605 said 3 months ago:

> And these people cannot just "adapt to changes" and move to new territories, because somebody is standing on the border with a gun. Tell them that "economic" thinking is the way "to move forward".

The “economic” solution would be to remove the people with the guns. There’s a reason why so many economists are in favor of completely open borders.

perfunctory said 3 months ago:

Agree with open borders part. At the same time you can't keep moving to new territories forever. Sooner or later you'll fall off the edge of the Earth.

mistermann said 3 months ago:

Sometimes borders guarded by people with guns are there for valid historic reasons. Maybe those economists are thinking too theoretically and shallowly, and overlooking the unfortunate but very real complexity of life.

falcolas said 3 months ago:

Funny, that was a (highly criticized) solution used by the US when it comes to oil. Go in and remove the people with the guns - using (or buying) force when economics fails. And economic means fail quite often - people are not always rational actors who do the things that are in their best interest.

imustbeevil said 3 months ago:

> Tell them that "economic" thinking is the way "to move forward".

What would the "ecological" solution be for those people? As in, what can they do ecologically?

Economics is just the study of scarcity. Water in that location became scarce. Any action anyone takes as a result of that scarcity is economical thinking.

perfunctory said 3 months ago:

The point is that water didn't just become scarce all by itself. It was the result of the economic activity upstream. To be honest I don't know what those people can do now, after the ecosystem collapse. But the situation could have been avoided in the first place I suppose. "economic" and "ecological" thinking need to work together to begin with imho.

Or maybe "economic" vs "ecological" is the wrong dichotomy and misleading terminology. Maybe ecology should be just part of the economy. Who knows.

marcus_holmes said 3 months ago:

I think the labels need some work - this is not a fight between economics and ecological science. It's just that economists view a system as a robust, constantly-adapting set of tensions between different market forces, while ecologists look at systems as a fragile set of fixed energy flows.

I think it's interesting that the Aral Sea is an environmental disaster. This reflects a mindset that values stability, and sees any change as bad. You could equally view this as an environmental triumph - millions of hectares of previously barren land is now flourishing, providing not only a huge crop yield, but also all that goes with that; animal life relying on the now-abundant food and water, humans tending and improving the landscape, etc.

It's just change.

BlueTemplar said 3 months ago:

Yes, but it's the other way around : Economy is part of (Society, which is part of) Ecology.

est31 said 3 months ago:

We got to this ecological thinking not by random chance. Think of DDT or of nuclear tests that polluted the biosphere until a degree that traces were found in children's milk teeth close to the test areas.

Will climate change be the end of humanity? Likely it won't. Probably some areas will even become usable for farming that previously weren't. But the homes of significant populations will become inhospitable, leading to them wanting to leave those places. This can and will cause tremendous wars of fighting about resources. Think of the war in Syria, here droughts have contributed to destabilizing the country.

Sharlin said 3 months ago:

You cannot just let the economy to find a way, not in general. The negative externalities incurred in the process are simply way too high. Or, rather, if you want economy to find a way, you have to make sure those externalities are fully paid for by those who cause them.

rfrey said 3 months ago:

I think it’s useful to distinguish between ‘economic thinking’ as described by your parent, and the current western economic leaning toward market economies. As I understand the comment, economic thinking is a story about adaptive systems, not necessarily a story about unfettered markets.

clarkmoody said 3 months ago:

An unfettered market is the most adaptive system possible: land, minerals, goods, money and labor not restricted in their movement, allocation, or prices. The system responds quickly to changing conditions and reallocates resources accordingly. Prices communicate the scarcity of goods and money (interest rates) and send signals to consumers and producers alike to ration those things with higher prices or to seek alternatives.

Check out the Depression of 1920-21[1] for an example of the economy bouncing back without government intervention.

As soon as you introduce price controls, permitting, licensing, interest rate controls, labor restrictions (age, wage), quotas, or any of the other government interventions in the economy, you introduce inefficiency compared to the "unfettered market."

The primary criticism of markets is externalities not accounted for in prices. This is where free-market environmentalism[2] steps in to argue that that the failure is due to the fact that there is no property in air and water, so you have a tragedy of the commons. Increasing property rights to include previously unowned resources could capture the externalities and begin to correct market failure.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depression_of_1920%E2%80%9321

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-market_environmentalism

jbay808 said 3 months ago:

Nice theory you have there. But is there any experimental evidence that free market environmentalism works?

In that case, in place of policy debates in parliament and election campaigns, you now have a big lawsuit going between Exxon and whoever owns the atmosphere, as well as everyone else with an economic stake in our current climate.

As bad as taxes and regulations are, is there any evidence that court battles and lawyers are more efficient? There isn't a nonzero transaction cost to resolving these things. Is it less costly than legislating a carbon tax?

Furthermore, judges and juries are going to be just as vulnerable to Exxon misinformation campaigns as politicians and voters are today. And with the owners of the atmosphere having a direct financial stake in showing that pollution is harmful to their interests, the research they fund would be even less credible than government funded research.

Does accurately estimating and doing the accounting for the externalities get easier or harder in that kind of a system?

rayiner said 3 months ago:

Making sure externalities are priced in is economic thinking.

Economic thinking: disposable consumer devices should have the cost of recycling and safe disposal priced in.

Ecological thinking: we shouldn't allow disposable consumer devices.

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

Economics simply fails to account for many ecological sourcing and disposal costs.

Hotelling's Rule (still taught despite no empirical support), the Rule of Capture, and law of unintended consequences are only three of the more glaring elements of this.

The dynamic Bernard J. Stern identified of established powers and agents seeking to retain, inflate, or at a minimum prevent devaluation of their assets or positions (this has no general name of which I'm aware) is another huge element. One mechanism of this does have a name: agnetology, a/k/a, manufactured ignorance or confusion, as expressed in the lead, asbestos, tobacco, alcohol, and fossil fuel industries, among others. See Proctor, Oreskes, and Conway, particularly in Merchants of Doubt.

Fully accounted petroleum would reflect a cost millions of times greater than present market prices.







devmacrile said 3 months ago:

Yeah - this is a very good point. At a certain point, the scale of economic activity has to bump up against the finite scale of ecological dynamics upon which it is dependent. As long as negative externalities are treated as such - something "external" - markets cannot be expected to efficiently allocate resources w.r.t. human welfare.

The idea of and faith in economic adaptation as described in the parent (price/demand dynamics) is greatly dependent on the assumption of underlying ecological stability (from which sufficient timeframes for adaption and resource alternatives are provided).

marcus_holmes said 3 months ago:

no, that's the point - that economic thinking is all about adaptation to circumstances, and makes no assumptions about the stability of anything.

"enough time to adapt" is always present, if you stop thinking about stability being present at all. The system is in a constant state of adaptation to current circumstances, and those circumstances are constantly changing. As those circumstances change, so the system adapts to them. It doesn't need "time to adapt", it is constantly adapting.

Ecological thinking emphasises the brittleness of a particular system, and talks about ecological collapse when the situation changes too fast for the system to cope with. Economic thinking emphasises the adaptability of the system, and how it flows from one state to another depending on circumstances.

What we have now is not a "stable system" that has a finite tolerance for change, relying on an underlying stability provided by a fixed set of parameters. It's an adaptive system that has an infinite tolerance for change, underpinned by nothing stable.

If the externalities of that system become apparent, then the system will change to cope with it. There's a good argument that the current "climate emergency" is exactly this: that the system has previously treated the atmosphere (and ocean) as infinitely-large dumping grounds for waste products, and that it is now adapting to the fact that that's not true.

Of course, if anything inside this adaptive system relies on a particular aspect of it to remain stable, then that is a challenge for that entity. On a grand scale, you could view this as humanity depending on a livable biosphere. On a smaller scale, this could be your country depending on oil revenues. On a smaller scale, this could be your family depending on the housing market always rising.

I've recently been reading AntiFragile, and that talks about the same thing. Relying on stability is fragile. Adapting to (and benefiting from) change is antifragile.

L_226 said 3 months ago:

> A static ecosystem didn't exist without us and it certainly doesn't exist with us.

It is possible that our species is creating a static ecosystem - one without biodiversity and blandly homogenous in its design to sustain our current way of life, with no room for "inefficiencies" (i.e. everything else on the planet that competes for resources).

sametmax said 3 months ago:

If you run in a straight line, toward a cliff, you can hope that when you get there, a bridge will have been built. And it may work quite often. It has for us in the past (although we are kin to forget the cost we paid for it).

But it's not a bad answer to suggest to slow down to give time for the bridge to be built, or just change course. You can also assume some of us will not die in the fall even if the bridge is not there, and part of the group will survive. But it's not bad to suggest we could choose another way.

The thing is, even if the universe is not a closed system, our Earth system can be approximated as such, once we consider social/logistical/scientific bottlenecks, education, time available, speed of consumption and reaction, inertia, and our desire to avoid a genocide.

I keep posting this video (in 8 parts):


Because I wish more people would watch it.

It's a very good mathematical and political explanation of why we can't continue just thinking "growth". It addresses the usual rebukes such as "we are not in a finite system", "this is not a zero sum game", "innovation/adaptation will save us" or "we can make it sustainable/reasonable".

I particularly like the part where Albert Allen Bartlett explains how our growth affects democracy, comfort, health, and peace, not just resource consumption.

ratel said 3 months ago:

The analogy of the cliff seems nice, until you give it some thought. a) We are not actually running. What does stop and think about it actually mean? If there is a cliff and if we can stop or change direction. why not on the edge of the cliff, why way before that? b) Nobody is excepting a bridge to miraculously appear, but we might be thinking about how to cross that cliff when we get there and prepare. Humans are actually quite good at that. Will it costs us more than we were expecting when we could not yet see that 'cliff' yet. Definitely, but we were not born with foresight and have a limited time-frame of reference even if we can predict with some certainty. The later is why we are not investing everything for the time our sun will turn off its light. Call it the human condition.

As for your insistence that 'growth' cannot be sustained. I suspect you mean population growth, although nobody is actually "thinking" as in wishing for that. I for one cannot have a meaningful conversation on that. People who really belief that is our biggest problem are no longer here to have that conversation with and all others tend to mean: There are too many _other_ people. That discussion has been taking place under many different guises, none of them remotely interesting.

sametmax said 3 months ago:

Watch the video, your points are addressed.

mistermann said 3 months ago:

> a) We are not actually running. What does stop and think about it actually mean?

To me, "running" refers approximately to "going about business on our current trajectory; the status quo". "Stop and think" means just that: stop and think, but think deeply. Thinking shallowly is effortless, thinking deeply is a different story (perhaps especially for those of higher intelligence, whose shallow thinking can often be equivalent to the layman's deep thinking).

For any given problem, is the situation more complex than it appears on the surface? Have I overlooked anything? Are there non-obvious second order effects that are invisible when thinking about the situation in isolation, but manifest themselves in the real world of integrated systems? Are there any examples in history where shallow thinking got humanity into trouble? For this, the speaker gives the example of the Aswan Dam, on the Nile river; many other things could be added to that list, such as war.

> If there is a cliff and if we can stop or change direction. why not on the edge of the cliff, why way before that?

Momentum, and lack of support from an often selfish, non-unified, and shallow thinking public (see how quickly China can execute on disruptive projects vs the glacial speed in democracies that require consensus).

> b) Nobody is excepting a bridge to miraculously appear, but we might be thinking about how to cross that cliff when we get there and prepare. Humans are actually quite good at that.

Good, but not perfect, especially when the problem is not purely technical, but involves (even in part) relationships with other humans (see: seemingly minor actions that lead to major interpersonal, tribal (political polarism, culture wars), or international conflicts).

I like this part from the 8th segment of the playlist (emphasis and [additions] mine):

> ...now except for the petroleum graphs the things I tell you are not predictions of the future, I'm only reporting facts and the results of some very simple arithmetic, but I do this with confidence that these facts, this arithmetic, and more importantly our level of understanding of them will play a major role in shaping our future. Now don't take what I've said blindly or uncritically because of the rhetoric or for any other reason. Please, you check the facts, please check my arithmetic, if you find errors please let me know. But if you don't find errors then, I hope you'll take this very very seriously.

> You are important people, you can think, and if there was ever a time when the human race needs people who will think, it's right now. It's our responsibility as citizens in a democracy to think, and so to be successful with this experiment of human life on earth we have to understand the laws of nature as we encounter them in the study of science and mathematics [and psychology and sociology]. We have to remember the message of this cartoon: thinking is very upsetting it tells us things we'd rather not know. We should remember the words of Galileo, he said I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. We should remember the words of Aldous Huxley, he observed that facts do not cease to exist because they're ignored. And we should remember HL Mencken social philosophy, he believed that it was in the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant [or unpleasant, in some psychologically counter-intuitive situations], and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting, and we should remember Eric Sevareide's, law he was a newscaster who made the transition from radio to television back in the 1950s he observed that the chief source of problems is solutions. Now let's just look at an example the Nile River for

icebraining said 3 months ago:

For people who prefer to read, here's a transcript: https://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_populati...

marcus_holmes said 3 months ago:

thank you. I wish every presenter, no matter how good, realised that some people prefer reading to watching video.

marcus_holmes said 3 months ago:

this is exactly the ecological mindset I was talking about.

To use the example he uses: Boulder, Colorado, if it grows at 5% per year, will start running out of livable space near the town centre. As it expands, property prices will increase and adapt to the rising demand, and growth will slow as the once-attractive city becomes less affordable and less attractive. The councillor who wants 5% growth now (because at this point in time, 5% is fine) might be perfectly aware that 5% growth can't be continued for 70 years. That wasn't the question he was asked - having a single idealised growth rate for all time is ridiculous. The growth rate will need to adapt to circumstances.

The part about coal consumption is also simplistic and naive, because it doesn't take price into account. If coal becomes scarce, the price rises, and demand drops. You can cheerfully say "coal will last 1000 years" (if you wanted to, but why you'd want to is another question), because coal consumption is not going to continue at a steady pace until suddenly there's no more coal. As the coal stocks dwindle, the price will go up and less critical uses of coal will stop, and demand will decrease, until eventually 1000 years from now, the last piece of coal is in a museum and way too expensive to burn.

The "peak oil" thing that he talks about is the perfect example. Everyone (for good reasons) thought we'd hit peak oil in 2008. Then the oil price rose enough to make fracking viable, so natural gas took over providing energy for a bunch of things that we'd been using oil for (and they also found more oil fields), and suddenly there's enough oil and western civilisation continues as normal. The whole thing was a huge false alarm and the Hibbert curve is expanded yet again.

anyway, interesting talk, thanks for sharing :)

ripsawridge said 3 months ago:

Bartlett is the most amazing presenter nobody ever heard about. I like his talks/papers very much.

erikpukinskis said 3 months ago:

> choosing to improve our environment rather than to get it back to some idealized past

There’s a third way, FWIW, which is a “cycle mindset”.

That this has happened before, and we will inevitably return to the past. That things won’t be the same, but they will be.

chachachoney said 3 months ago:

I think you're confusing prelapsarian yearnings with the innate desire for sustainability & equipoise with the environment.

Ecosystems are not static, and neither are our species' interactions with them, but that doesn't mean that it's naive to strive for solutions which have minimal impact on external systems and by extension other members of our species who depend on them.

The reason we don't have more universal 'economical' story tropes is that most forms of economical thinking are simply bad-faith optimization routines for the benefit of a very few, and contain all sorts of hidden variables which represent the unmet needs of expendable or undesirable members of our own species.

We (as a species) haven't seen a lot of good-faith economical solutions which improve the environment for all without hidden costs paid at the expense of others. When we have seen a significant number of such examples, our tropes will reflect them.

(of perhaps... tropes which point to such solutions threaten the architects of bad-faith economic solutions while unattainable eden paradise tropes do not...)

jacques_chester said 3 months ago:

That's a fairly unfair characterisation of ecology as a science.

In any case, while it's true that market systems can adapt to changing circumstances via the price system, it's important to note that the shifts can be abrupt and that technological progress needn't be monotonic.

Certain physical limits will exist whether or not they are approached economically, just as certain economic limits exists whether or not they are approached physically.

UweSchmidt said 3 months ago:

Besides markets adapting and finding new equilibriums, there may still be ressources that run out and ultimately can't be replaced, similarly how the Easter Islands were deforested and life got permanently worse [1].

Maybe rare earths can be substituted in phones, and other technological progress makes up for the loss. Either way, the same market forces itself do nothing to stop the coming climate catastrophy and would happily find a new equilibrium with large parts of the planet not being livable. That's why "ecological thinking" is important.

[1] https://rainforests.mongabay.com/09easter_island.htm

perfunctory said 3 months ago:

"ecological" seems to be an unfortunate choice of term in this context.

codeGreene said 3 months ago:

Thank you for putting so eloquently what I was feeling while reading that. Half way through, I remembered that I had read that article years ago, and it had me worried at the time. Since then, we've seen no drop in iPhone sales, that's for sure.

said 3 months ago:
mcv said 3 months ago:

I'd also expect many of these elements to exist in asteroids. Wouldn't it be better to mine those instead?

Sharlin said 3 months ago:

I’m sure someone will, the moment it becomes more economical than exploiting what we have on Earth (including recycling—it’s not like the rare earths are consumed, they’re just discarded because extracting the pristine stuff is still too cheap!) I’m not going to hold my breath.

raxxorrax said 3 months ago:

Rare earth is everywhere, there just needs to be an economic incentive to mine them. Which is still low and you cannot get to an industrial scale in a few days.

opencl said 3 months ago:

Maybe after the price of rockets drops by several orders of magnitude and the price of obtaining the elements on Earth also increases by several orders of magnitude.

devoply said 3 months ago:

Yes as long as there is a way to make positive NPV that's true. Take that away and the whole system does ground to a halt.

FakeComments said 3 months ago:

> Life finds a way...

...on precisely one of a dozen planets in the solar system, and perhaps one in the hundreds (or thousands?) we’ve found.

It’s not clear that life can endure indefinitely, and obviously it can’t under some circumstances.

Further, high technology could easily go the way of the dinosaurs, and require “re-evolving”, only to find the present conditions don’t permit as advanced of technologies.

gjmulhol said 3 months ago:

One of the big questions is whether we can extract these minerals from existing devices that are out of use/have been disposed of. Ideally, that means that we are designing new devices with disassembly in mind. Everyone from Apple to Huawei is talking about doing this, but the proof will be in the pudding.

Some of the comments are slightly inaccurate. We actually don't know where all the deposits are, and there was just a large discovery of rare earth elements off the coast of Japan. Much rare earth extraction has been happening in China because of relatively lax environmental standards that have reached back decades, so the US, Australia, and many other countries with deposits can't compete due to the costs of labor and complying with environmental standards and regulations. Mountain pass is one of a few deposits in the US, and happens to be one of the larger ones that is sitting idle. There are lots of mines globally and could be more, but economically they need to be attractive.

Copper is another interesting element. It is exceedingly hard to extract from existing devices because it is buried inside the chips, boards, etc. You can recover about 25% of the copper in a device, or about 3% of the total mineral content of a device when you extract copper. Widespread copper mining has destroyed parts of the Atacama desert in Chile and is a really nasty process.

Finally, work has been going on for a long time to replace rare earth elements or dramatically reduce how much is used. In some cases, you need small amounts because you need those f-orbital electrons but you can get away with using creative coatings instead of large volumes of materials. In other cases, you can replace them by multi-layering other materials to approximate their performance. There are huge opportunities here, but we are a couple decades away from seeing any real sea change in what our devices are made of.

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

> You can recover about 25% of the copper in a device

This is surprising to me, because it's all on the surface of the PCBs? Where does the other 75% "go"? I'd have thought if you incinerate the thing you'll get a puddle of gold-copper mix running out the bottom, and the rest of the rare elements and aluminium as oxides in the slag.

Nasrudith said 3 months ago:

It goes into things that are uneconomical to extract without vastly different conditions. Technically one could breakdown and separate everything by element and isotope but that would be an incredibly inefficient way of doing so.

DennisP said 3 months ago:

The main reason we don't have rare earth mines in the U.S. is that we don't want to deal with the uranium and thorium. Of course there are productive things we could do with those elements, which would also go a long way towards reducing our carbon emissions.

If we do run low on rare earths or platinum group metals, there's plenty in the asteroids. Once we have reusable rockets and can harvest fuel from the asteroids or the moon, mining the asteroids for high-value metals could actually be fairly economical, and would remove the environmental impact of the mining it replaces on Earth.

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

An argument has been made that one of China's key exports has been its willingness to absorb massive environmental contamination. A practice which seems to be changing, though there may be new marker entrants. Not necessarilly fully voluntary on the part of all participants, most especially those not yet born.

Pyxl101 said 3 months ago:

Isn't it amazing that all of these elements have so many distinct industrial uses? How did people figure all of this stuff out? Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction.

Also, related: I read an article in WaPo about the only rare earths mine in the United States:


> This is Mountain Pass, the only mine in the United States that harvests rare-earth elements, the raw ingredients used to produce high-tech products such as smartphones, wind turbines, electric vehicles and fighter jets.

pjc50 said 3 months ago:

People essentially spent entire careers trying stuff, until comparatively recently when materials science theoretical modelling became good enough.

The classic Ignition! is well worth reading to see the process from the inside. The basic figure of merit for rocket fuels, specific impulse, could be calculated on paper. All sorts of other critical properties like detonation resistance had to be found experimentally. As well as the trick to storing red fuming nitric acid without eating through stainless steel.

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

Chemistry and materials science.

See also the Harbord List and dawning awareness of strategic minerals during WWI.



codeGreene said 3 months ago:

Thank you, this stuff interests the hell out of me. I'll never be at MIT, but I can read it in my spare time!

imtringued said 3 months ago:

I don't see the problem. They aren't limited in a meaningful sense. It's just that the global race to the bottom makes the vast majority of deposits unprofitable.

codedokode said 3 months ago:

As I remember, rare earth elements are not that rare. And China is not the only place having them. But extracting them is not very profitable in Western countries because they have too strict ecological requirements.

3xblah said 3 months ago:

"Apple's parts are soldered and glued into place before being fastened together with proprietary screws which makes basic repairs like swapping out a broken screen or replacing a dead battery a headache. Which makes it difficult for anyone lacking a half dozen robotic arms to tear apart an iPhone to recycle the components. ...

For Apple, this may be a feature rather than a bug: Documents obtained by Motherboard in 2017 revealed that the company requires its recycling partners to shred iPhones and MacBooks so that their components cannot be reused, further reducing the value recyclers can get out."

ciconia said 3 months ago:

One thing a lot of the (skeptic) comments here don't take into account is the role of petrol in mining. Petrol is the single discovery that has made basically all of modern technology and manufacturing possible. Petrol is incredibly energy-dense and is still incredibly cheap. Without it, there's no plastic, no mining and basically no transport. It's also worth mentioning that without petrol there would be no solar panels and no large scale wind turbine installations.

Interested readers might like to read about the concept of "energy returned on energy invested" or EROEI [1], which demonstrates the limitations of renewable energies and the implications of peak petrol.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_inve...

erikpukinskis said 3 months ago:

Agree EROEI is profoundly important for planning the next century.

However, your point doesn’t change the core criticism of the “skeptic” audience. Yes we use petrol for plastic but if it disappeared we could use plants. Yes we use petrol for heavy machines but if they disappeared we could use batteries.

And yes, there’s not enough petroleum available to build all the batteries and plant plastic fabrication facilities we’d need to replace the petroleum economy. So that sounds bad.

Except it’s only bad if all that happens quickly, at the same time. And it won’t. Batteries will become economical before we run out of petroleum for plastic.

I’m not saying they’re right, but the skeptic argument is that the economy will adapt to these challenges one at a time.

What’s the counter argument?

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

Though he's scarcely a Limits to Growth devotee, it was Daniel Yergin's The Prize (book and BBC/PBS series) which hammered home the absolutely staggering impact of petroleum on human growth and technological progress.


Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization tells the history, and impact, of energy on humanprogress evenmore specifically, and over a far longer period, through five eras: hunter-gatherer, ag, coal, oil, and whatever it is that comes next.


EROEI is a large part of that, though it doesn't tell the whole story. EROEI of coal is often higher than petroleum, but petroleum's handling characteristics -- fluid rather than solid -- and inherent portability, over both long distances and short, make it vastly more useful and flexible, most especially in motive applications, and transport in particular.

Some of petroleum's role in mining can be replaced by electricity (see vast open-pit electrically-powered bucket excavators), so long as there's a primary energy source for that. Others not so much: global bulk liquid and ore transport is highly tied to oil-fueled marine deisel engines.

agentultra said 3 months ago:

This is one of the reasons why I think it's important we look to re-using computers, build computers with interchangeable components, and look towards designing p2p networks that replicate data around. Start designing software for newer protocols to run on low-powered machines. There are so many computers in the world it's incredible and yet they're practically built to be disposable. I don't think they can continue to increase in price forever when the network of supplies to manufacture them is so weak. And especially when climate events will be able to destroy vast quantities of them quickly.

It's surprising how much computing power is stuffed into consumer laptops these days and how people keep buying new ones when their existing ones work fine.

damasko said 3 months ago:

> It's surprising how much computing power is stuffed into consumer laptops these days and how people keep buying new ones when their existing ones work fine.

This is contrary to my experience. Year to year these fancy webgl responsive webpages get slower and slower to load. I need an 8650U with at least 8 GB of RAM to surf the web and load some pages under 5 sec. The development of basically a new uniform os within the existing os's is just crazy.

agentultra said 3 months ago:

Indeed. My primary machine at home right now is a 13 year old Dell laptop. It has some added RAM and an SSD drive. I can barely scroll the Twitter home page on it. I can barely use the Zulip web client (no "native" client for 32bit architectures... would be slow as molasses anyway) -- and that's just to chat with other developers working on Lean.

I've been using eww in emacs to browse the web and... surprise it's fast. And less annoying.

punchagan said 3 months ago:

Zulip has a terminal client that's right now alpha software, but being actively worked on! You might want to give it a spin. https://github.com/zulip/zulip-terminal

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

Similarly, from USGS:

Erin A. McCullough and Nedal Nassar, "Assessment of critical minerals: Updated application of an early-warning screening methodology", https://doi.org/10.1007/s13563-017-0119-6

Increasing reliance on non-renewable mineral resources reinforces the need for identifying potential supply constraints before they occur. The US National Science and Technology Council recently released a report that outlines a methodology for screening potentially critical minerals based on three indicators: supply risk (R), production growth (G), and market dynamics (M). This early-warning screening was initially applied to 78 minerals across the years 1996 to 2013 and identified a subset of minerals as “potentially critical” based on the geometric average of these indicators—designated as criticality potential (C)....



Critical mineral resources of the United States—Economic and environmental geology and prospects for future supply

Which addresses antimony, barite (barium), beryllium, cobalt, fluorine, gallium, germanium and indium, graphite, lithium, manganese, niobium and tantalum, platinum-group elements, rare-earth elements, rhenium, selenium, tellurium, tin, titanium, vanadium, zirconium and hafnium.


(148 MB PDF)

spzb said 3 months ago:

Google cache as the site is having a little lie-down at the moment https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http:/...

said 3 months ago:
cung said 3 months ago:

Just read about Julian Simon's book, "The Ultimate Resource 2 (1997)", in which he argues that the world will never run out of resources, as it is the human mind that drives advance, not capital or materials. In other words, just as Marcus_Holmes argued, supply and demand will make more expensive processes feasible and provide new sources if essential elements.

alexnewman said 3 months ago:

Rare Earth isn't rare. People just get things mixed up do the name.

alexnewman said 3 months ago:

Why was this downvoted. Seriously rare earth is a totally a non issue.

piterdevries said 3 months ago:

Space mining?

dkobia said 3 months ago:


k__ said 3 months ago:

Can't recycling save us until we have good enough alternatives?

dredmorbius said 3 months ago:

Recycling has a limited recovery basis. Over generations, for a recovery fraction r over n generations, remaining material is r^n.

At a 90% recovery rate, after 2 generations, 81% of the original material remains. After 10 generations, it's a smidge under 35%.

The most heavily recycled material in the U.S. is asphalt, with rates approaching 90% recovery.

The most-recycled mineral or metal is lead, with rates of 74%. At two generations, the remaining material is 55%. After 10, it's less than 5%.


USGS also have numerous interesting publications on mineral usage and supplies: