Peak Minerals: Shortage of Rare Earth Metals Threatens Renewable Energy

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Tue Jul 31 12:22:22 BST 2012

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In case you hadn't seen it, we at the Free Range Network produced a 
presentation and some research on this issue nearly two years ago:

The original article is on Chris Rhodes' blog, "Energy Balance" --


Peak Minerals: Shortage of Rare Earth Metals Threatens Renewable Energy

Professor Chris Rhodes, Monday 30th July 2012

Not only are supplies of oil and natural gas under imminent threat of 
failing to meet demand for them, but so is a whole range of precious 
metals, along with indium, gallium and germanium and other vital elements 
such as phosphorus and helium, as is discussed throughout this Commentary. 
A report from the Science and Technology Committee, advised by the Royal 
Society of Chemistry, warns that if the U.K. does not secure supplies of 
strategic metals, its economic growth will be severely jeopardized. Of 
particular concern are indium, used in touch screens and liquid crystal 
displays, and rare earth elements (REEs) particularly neodymium and 
dysprosium, used to fabricate highly efficient magnets for electric cars and 
wind turbines. Platinum group metals are an issue too, used in catalytic 
converters and fuel cells. As is true of oil and gas, and indeed world 
population, such resources are not evenly distributed around the globe, and 
for example 80% of available new platinum is extracted from just two mines 
in South Africa. 92% of the niobium used in the world (for superconducting 
magnets and highly heat-resisting superalloys e.g. in jet-engines and 
rocket subassemblies) is exported from Brazil, and 97% of REEs are 
presently supplied from China.

In developing a low-carbon transport infrastructure, it is proposed that 
biofuels should be used principally for aviation where there is no 
practical alternative to liquid fuels. Thus, it is ventured, electric cars 
will become increasingly important in providing personalised transport 
while avoiding the use of petroleum or natural-gas based fuels. The knock-
on effect is that new sources of lithium must be found along with the means 
to mine and process the metal, plus the inauguration of recycling 
technology for lithium. One can immediately take issue with the 
practicalities of both arms of this scheme, however. Roughly one fifth of 
all fuel in the UK is used for aircraft, or around 13 million tonnes. At a 
yield of 952 L/ha and a density of 0.88 g/cm3, to produce this much 
biodiesel would take 15.5 million hectares of arable land, of which the UK 
has only 6.5 million hectares. Thus if we were to stop growing food crops 
entirely and just rapeseed, we could still only fuel 42% of our aviation 
fleet. It is obvious that just a few percent at best of our current number 
of planes can be kept in the air by means of biofuels. Clearly, the days of 
cheap air-travel are numbered and this may be one reason why the coalition 
government has scrapped plans to build the controversial and vexed third 
runway at Heathrow Airport. Given the 30 million cars on the roads here 
currently fuelled by oil, the case for a wide-scale implementation of 
electric-cars might appear compelling. However, the lead-in time to make a 
dent in that number of vehicles and the 60 million tonnes of crude oil used 
for fuel would be decades at best, even if the necessary supplies of REEs, 
lithium and overall manufacturing capacity for them could be achieved. The 
most practical use for electricity is to power mass transportation, e.g. 
tramways and railway networks rather than individual vehicles.

Endangered Elements: Threat to Green Energy.

Underpinning the above political agenda, a list of "endangered elements" 
has been published in a new report, including the rare earth elements 
(REEs), in particular neodymium, production of which, it is reckoned, will 
have to increase five-times to build enough magnets for the number of wind-
turbines deemed necessary for a fully renewable future. Nonetheless, my 
rough calculations indicate that this would still take 50 - 100 years to 
implement, depending on exactly what proportion of the renewable 
electricity budget would be met from wind-power, and if the manufacturing 
capacity and other resources of materials and energy needed for this 
Herculean task will prevail.

Neodymium is a rare earth metal used extensively to produce permanent 
magnets found in everything from computer hard disks and cell phones to 
wind turbines and cars. Neodymium magnets are the strongest permanent 
magnets known, and a neodymium magnet of a few grams can lift a thousand 
times its own weight. The magnets that drive a Toyota Prius hybrid’s 
electric motor use around 1 kilogram of neodymium, while 10 - 15 kg of 
lanthanum is used in its battery. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were 
invented in the 1980s to overcome the global cobalt supply shock that 
occurred as the result of internal warfare in Zaire (now Congo). Around one 
tonne of REE-based permanent magnets is needed to provide each MW of wind-
turbine power.

Of the other REEs, demands for dysprosium and terbium, which are harder 
elements to extract than their lighter relatives, are such that supply will 
be outpaced within a decade. The latter have been described as "miracle" 
ingredients for green energy production since small quantities of 
dysprosium can result in magnets with only one tenth the weight of 
conventional permanent magnets of similar strength, while terbium can be 
used to furnish lights that use as little as 20% of the power consumed by 
normal illumination. By alloying neodymium with dysprosium and terbium, 
magnets are created that more readily maintain their magnetism at the high 
temperatures of hybrid car engines.

However, far more dysprosium relative to neodymium is required than occurs 
naturally in the REE ores, meaning that another source of dysprosium must 
be found if hybrid cars are to be manufactured at a seriously advancing 
rate. As noted, almost all REEs come from China whom it appears will run 
out of dysprosium and terbium within 15 years, or sooner if demand 
continues to soar, notwithstanding that Chinese hegemony for its own future 
energy projects may mean that the current amount of REEs being released 
onto the world markets will be severely curbed. Almost certainly, new 
sources of REEs will be sought, given their vital importance to providing 
future renewable energy, and Japanese geologists have reported that there 
may be 100 billion tonnes of REEs in the mud of the floor of the Pacific 
Ocean. Since the minerals were found at depths of 3,500 to 6,000 metres 
(11,500-20,000 ft) below the ocean surface, the undertaking required to 
recover them will not be trivial, however, and the practicalities of the 
enterprise remain to be seen.

Peak Oil - Peak Minerals.

According to the Hubbert theory, all resources are finite and will 
ultimately be extracted only to the limit where it is feasible to do so, 
whereupon either financial costs or those of energy dictate that to proceed 
further only yields diminishing returns. The Hubbert theory was originally 
applied to oil, in which the production curve "peaks" at the point of 
maximum output (when half the original resource has been used), beyond 
which it falls remorselessly. Similar fits can also be made to gas and coal 
production data and a recent analysis was reported using the approach to a 
study of 57 different minerals by Ugo Burdi and Marco Pagini. These authors 
have fitted both logistic and Gaussian functions to mineral production data 
from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and it is interesting that 
for mercury, lead, cadmium and selenium, there is good accord found between 
the "ultimate recoverable resources" URR determined from the curve-fitting 
to the data and those reported as remaining in the USGS tables (plus the 
amount of each already extracted). For tellurium, phosphorus, thallium, 
zirconium and rhenium, the agreement is quite close but tends to smaller 
values than are indicated from the figures for cumulative production plus 
the USGS reserves. For gallium, the figure obtained from the fitting analysis 
is significantly lower than the USGS estimate (by about a factor of seven).

Evidence of peaking is found for a number of minerals, e.g. mercury around 
1962; lead in 1986; zirconium in 1990; selenium in 1994; gallium in 2000. 
The results for gallium are significant, both in that the peak occurred 
seven years ago and in the size of its total reserve, which when compared 
with the amount used worldwide by the electronics industry, implies that we 
may run short of gallium any time soon. Tellurium and selenium are two 
other minerals that underpin the semiconductor industry and it appears that 
their fall in production may also impact negatively on future technologies 
that are entirely reliant upon them, since there are no obvious substitute 
materials with precisely equivalent properties.

For vanadium, although a production peak is indicated in 2005, the data in 
the "mineral commodities handbook" show a later and sudden surge in 
production, which is not fully explained but thought may potentially relate 
to uncertainties in reporting from countries like China. So, there may be a 
real and ongoing upsurge in production from particularly the Chinese 
economy which is quoted as being "out of sync" with the rest of the world, 
such is its massive expansion, or it might be a red herring.

Hafnium, another metal whose days are numbered, is an essential component 
of computer-chips and is also employed as a thermal-neutron absorber in 
nuclear control-rods, is thought may literally run-out within 10 years. 
Peak oil we all know about, but peak gas, peak uranium and peak coal will 
follow. There is in fact a peak in the production of all materials that 
were laid down in the distant past, and we are using them up at an 
expanding rate.

Interestingly, copper, zinc, tin, nickel and platinum show an almost 
exponential increase in production; however, the stocks of some metals may 
be insufficient to supply the technological demands of the modern developed 
world into the far (or even near) future. There is also the issue of how 
quickly a rare and difficultly extractable metal such as platinum might be 
produced in comparison with an overall demand for it. Copper production can 
be fitted with an exponential function up to 2006, while a logistic function 
provides about the same quality of fit, yet indicates a peak in about 2040. 
The latter agrees reasonably well with the USGS estimated copper reserves 
of 0.5 - 1.0 Gigatons, while the fit gives 2 Gigatons. Notably, the world 
price of copper has skyrocketed during the past few years, which is again 
attributed to demand in China, as was the cost and shortage of wood earlier 
in the year.

The above analyses rest upon the case that the determined "peaks" represent 
actual global production maxima. Indeed, more reserves of all minerals may 
yet be found if we look assiduously enough for them; but herein lies the 
issue of underpinning costs, both in terms of finance and energy. It is the 
latter that may determine the real peaking and decline of minerals, which 
extend beyond the simple facts, say, of mining and refining a metal from its 
crude ore. There is also the cost-contribution from the energy needed to 
garner energy-materials such as oil, gas, coal and uranium, and thence to 
turn them into power and machinery; and since fossil fuels are being 
relentlessly depleted, it takes an inexorable amount energy to produce 
them, resulting in a cumulative and rising energy demand overall.

The whole "extractive system" is interconnected through required 
underpinning supplies of fossil fuels, and it is perhaps this that explains 
why the production of so many minerals seems to be peaking during the 
period between the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 
21st, in a virtual mirror-image of the era when troubles in the production 
of fossil fuels were experienced across the globe. Hence, it may be the 
lack of fossil fuels which determines the real amount of all other minerals 
that can be brought onto the world markets. Even if we manage to solve our 
energy problems, we may not have enough "stuff" to make things from. Some 
salient points about potential metals shortages are apparent from the list 
of elements in Table 17, which gives the world total reserve of each, the 
expected time of exhaustion based on current rates of production, and their 
principal uses. The figures therein are based on known reserves, noting that 
more might be found if they were explored for with sufficient assiduousness. 
However, emerging new technologies and a growing world population mean that 
some key-metals are likely to be exhausted more quickly, as indicated in 
Table 27. The reserve lifetime of a resource (also known as the R/P ratio) 
is defined as the known economically recoverable amount (R) divided by the 
current rate of use (P) of it, hence the values in Table 1 and Table 2. 
Economics predicts that as the lifetime of a reserve shortens so its price 
increases. Consequently, demand for that reserve decreases and other 
sources, once thought too expensive, enter the market. This tends to make 
the original reserve last longer, in addition to the volume of the new 
reserves. For example, there is enough bauxite reckoned to provide 
aluminium for 70 years, but the latter is an abundant element and there are 
many alternative known sources of it, thought to add-up to over 1000 years 
worth. In practice many other factors are involved, particularly 
geopolitical situations, but the basic geological fact remains: reserves 
are limited and hence their present patterns of consumption and growth are 
not sustainable over the longer term. While some elements are very 
plentiful compared to the total amount of them required, the rate at which 
they can be recovered sets a limit on how quickly a given reserve can be 
exploited. The R/P ratio analysis is of course a gross approximation, as 
the Hubbert-type fits to production show, since a given amount of a 
resource/year cannot be produced up to the bitter end. Production must 
eventually decline, mainly as the Energy Returned on Energy Invested 
(EROEI) falls.

The Role of Recycling.

In the face of resource depletion, recycling looks increasingly attractive. 
In this stage of development of the throw-away society, now might be the 
time to begin "mining" its refuse. It has been shown that there are part-
per-million (p.p.m.) quantities of platinum in road-side dust, which is 
similar to the 3 p.p.m. concentration in South African platinum ore. It is 
suggested that extracting platinum from this dust, which originates in 
catalytic converters, might prove lucrative and would expand the limited 
amount of platinum available, which even now does not meet demand for it. 
Discarded cell-phones too, might be a worthwhile source. For metals such as 
hafnium and Indium, recycling is the only way to extend the lifetime of 
critical sectors of the electronics industry. This is true also of gallium, 
tellurium and selenium, since all of them are past their production peak, 
which forewarns of imminent potential production shortages and escalating 
prices. While recycling of base-metals from scrap is a mature part of an 
industry worth $160 billion per year, current efforts to recover and recycle 
rare-metals are far less well advanced. However, in view of its present 
high-price, rhenium is now recovered from scrap bimetallic catalysts used 
in the oil refining industry. I expect to see an expansion of this top-end 
of the metals-market since rising demand for rare-metals will confer highly 
lucrative profits. It might be argued that we will never "run-out" of metals 
because their atoms remain intact, but the more dispersion that occurs in 
converting concentrated ores into final products, the more difficult and hence 
energy intensive it becomes to reclaim those metals in quantity. In a sense 
the problem is the same as deciding which quality of ore to mine in the 
first place: we now need to either find richer sources to recycle from or 
arrange how we use these materials in the first place to facilitate 
recycling. Ultimately, recycling needs to be deliberately designed into an 
integrated paradigm of extraction, use and reuse, rather than treating it 
as an unplanned consequence.

Table 1. Metals under threat: the world total reserve of each, and the 
expected time of exhaustion based on current rates of production and their 
principal uses.

Aluminium, 32,350 million tonnes, 1027 years (transport, electrical, 
Arsenic, 1 million tonnes, 20 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Antimony, 3.86 million tonnes, 30 years (some pharmaceuticals and 
Cadmium, 1.6 million tonnes, 70 years (Ni-Cd batteries)
Chromium, 779 million tonnes, 143 years (chrome plating)
Copper, 937 million tonnes, 61 years (wires, coins, plumbing)
Gallium 1000 - 1500 tonnes, 5 - 8 years (semiconductors, solar cells, MRI 
contrast agents).
Germanium, 500,000 tonnes (US reserve base), 5 years (semiconductors, 
Gold, 89,700 tonnes, 45 years (jewellery, "gold-teeth")
Hafnium, 1124 tonnes, 20 years (computer-chips, nuclear control-rods)
Indium, 6000 tonnes, 13 years (solar-cells and LCD's)
Lead, 144 million tonnes, 42 years (pipes and lead-acid batteries)
Nickel, 143 million tonnes, 90 years (batteries, turbine-blades)
Phosphorus, 49,750 million tonnes, 345 years ( fertilizer, animal feed)
Platinum/Rhodium, 79,840 tonnes, 360 years for Pt (jewellery, industrial-
catalysts, fuel-cells, catalytic-converters)
Selenium, 170,000 tonnes, 120 years (semiconductors, solar-cells)
Silver, 569,000 tonnes, 29 years (jewellery, industrial-catalysts)
Tantalum, 153,000 tonnes, 116 years, (cell-phones, camera-lenses)
Thallium, 650,000 tonnes, 65 years (High Temperature Superconductors, 
Organic Reagents)
Tin, 11.2 million tonnes, 40 years, (cans, solder)
Uranium, 3.3 million tonnes, 59 years (nuclear power-stations and weapons)
Zinc, 460 million tonnes, 46 years (galvanizing).

Table 2. It is predicted that the growth in world population, along with 
the emergence of new technologies will result in some key-metals being used 
up quite rapidly, e.g.

Antimony, 15 - 20 years.
Gallium, 5 years.
Hafnium, 10 years.
Indium, 5 - 10 years.
Platinum, 15 years.
Silver, 15 - 20 years.
Tantalum, 20 - 30 years.
Uranium, 30 - 40 years.
Zinc, 20 - 30 years.

Stolen Catalytic Convertors and Platinum Prices.

The price of platinum has just hit $1,722 an ounce, in consequence of fears 
that the major producers of the metal in South Africa will be unable to 
keep pace with rising demand for it and that it is seen as an “investment” 
commodity, along with gold. Around 40% of "new" platinum, extracted at a 
rate of close to 150 tonnes annually, is used for jewellery which is about 
the same as is used to make catalytic converters (“cats”). It is reckoned 
that scrapping one million such cats would yield 40,000 ounces of platinum 
(which works out at 40,000 x 31.10 g/Troy ounce = 1.244 tonnes or 1.244 g 
per cat, as an average). It is thought that the worldwide "scrap-platinum" 
market might eventually provide 1 million Troy ounces per year, or 31.1 
tonnes; meanwhile, those unwilling to wait have resorted to stealing cats, 
which we can reckon to be worth $69 each. Equivalent to £43, this is not 
quite a pedigree beast, but since the devices are quite easily stolen from 
parked cars (if you know where and how) this is now an increasing 

There is a considerable limitation in the rate at which platinum can be 
recovered in relation to the amount of it we would need to make fuel cells 
for vehicles powered by hydrogen on any significant scale. I have assumed 
there are 600 million "cars" on the highways of the world, but this does in 
fact err on the side of caution. At the end of 2004, the figure was closer 
to 500 million cars and 200 million trucks etc., (up from around 40 million 
vehicles altogether in 1945), and 500 million of that total are fitted with 
cats. It is less demanding in terms of platinum to make a cat than a fuel 
cell, since the latter use up to 100 g of platinum per unit, e.g. that 
employed by Daihatsu.

The US based consulting firm TIAX have concluded that world platinum will 
not run-out, and certainly if the amount of Pt required in fuel cells falls 
(as is claimed, to perhaps one third of the amount currently used, and 
there are far more optimistic claims too of about one sixth), there would 
be enough of it in existing mine-holdings to make those 680 million fuel 
cells, but it is a rare metal which is only laboriously wrestled from its 
ore, usually over a period of about 6 months. As noted earlier, 80% of 
world Pt comes from two mines in SA and most of the rest from another mine 
in the Urals. Enhancing new Pt output will be very difficult if not 
impossible in any significant amount.

It is highly unlikely that we will give-up all our jewellery and we need 
the existing cats to keep nitrogen oxide pollutants (NOx) and other traffic 
exhaust-emissions within acceptable limits. It is difficult to predict the 
date of breakthroughs in research and even more so to predict timelines for 
their commercial development. Notwithstanding, I am looking at a period of 
about 10 years, by when according to almost all estimates we will be past 
the point of peak oil production, and oil-supplies worldwide will be down, 
probably to 90 % of current levels, which is really going to hurt our 

In this interim of the "Oil Dearth Era", we cannot expect fuel-cells to 
help us much, and even if we surrendered half the world's new platinum (100 
tonnes) plus another 30 tonnes (which would involve taking 24 million 
vehicles off the road once their cats had been scrapped) from recycled 
platinum, we could introduce an optimistic 130 x 106 g/say 60 g/vehicle = 
2.17 million fuel cells per year. If we could do this starting now, in a 10 
year period, we could have 21.7 million new "fuel cell" cars, but we would 
have taken 240 million off the road for their cats. This would leave us with 
680 - 240 = 440 oil-powered vehicles left (having scrapped their cats for 
the Pt they contain, and ignoring those that had been stolen) plus 21.7 
million hydrogen-powered cars, making 68%, or two thirds of the current 

Rising fuel prices and shortages of fuel will force that number down 
significantly, and in 25 years we would be left with 54 million hydrogen 
vehicles, but if the cats are scrapped for their Pt, that will require the 
loss of 600 million oil-powered vehicles, or most of the current number, 
leaving us with just 9% of the current level of car transport power by oil, 
then powered by hydrogen. These sums are merely illustrative and are open 
to criticism, but I am simply trying to stress the point that the hydrogen 
economy, if it could be implemented will provide for less than 10% of 
current levels of transportation, while the shortages of oil expected over 
that same 25 years and the inexorably rising monetary and energy costs of 
its extraction and processing will force the great majority of current 
vehicles off the roads.

In the immediate future (a period of 10 years, starting now) we can forget 
about a hydrogen-based transport infrastructure. While making diesel from 
biomass and from algae by so-called second generation processes offers some 
hope (and does not compromise food production, unlike first generation 
biofuels, which ultimately must do), probably only 15% of current transport 
levels can be so maintained. The notion that we can simply change-over 
almost overnight to hydrogen or to anything else on a scale that will allow 
us to preserve our current measure of energy profligacy is simply wrong. 
Accordingly, society will begin to relocalise into smaller self-sustaining 
communities - if people can't move around so easily they will stay where 
they are, and will need to find a means for living at the local level. 
Deconstructing populous cities will be the most testing effort, and may 
prove impossible, but the world needs a clear plan of cooperative 
transformation and not further war and bloodshed over relentlessly 
depleting resources.

Agricultural Phosphorus Shortage Made Worse by Biofuels?

I read an article a few years ago on the subject of “Peak Phosphorus” which 
was called to mind again by a more recently published article. Phosphorus 
is an essential element in all living things, from plants to you and me, 
along with nitrogen and potassium - known collectively as, P, N, K, in the 
form of micronutrients that drive growth. Global demand for phosphate rock 
is predicted to rise at 2.3% per year, but this is likely to increase in 
order to produce biomass for biofuel production. If the transition is made 
to cellulosic ethanol as a fuel, because whole plants are consumed in the 
process, not merely the seeds etc., yet more phosphorus will be required 
and less of the plant (the "chaff") will be available to be returned as 
plant rubble after the harvest, which is a traditional and natural provider 
of K and P. However, the resource of phosphate rock is in decline, posing a 
threat to global food production. Similarly to the well-known Hubbert Peak 
analysis which predicts that individual oil wells or indeed the global 
production of oil reaches a maximum, beyond which it declines relentlessly, 
a similar function can be fitted to world phosphate production. The method 
can be adapted in terms of the Hubbert Linearization, which was used 
recently to predict that only around half the proven world coal reserve 
(903 Gt) will actually be extractable at some 435 Gt. This involves 
plotting the annual production (P) divided by total production to date (Q), 
i.e. the ratio, (P/Q), against total (cumulative) production to date (Q), 
yielding an intercept on the x-axis which corresponds to the ultimate 
recoverable reserve.

The result indicates that the peak for phosphate production happened in the 
US in 1988 and for the world in 1989. The really telling aspect of the 
article is the inclusion of a plot of world oil production versus world 
population, for which the two quantities can be seen to follow one another 
closely. The conclusion is that we literally eat oil, since it underpins 
almost all agriculture, certainly in the developed nations, but also N and 
P, as required by the Green Revolution, which has preserved us from a 
Malthusian die-off scenario - so far, at least. Population has only grown as 
it has because of cheap phosphate deposits and cheap energy to produce the 
mineral and to get it onto farms around the world. The timing of the 
production peak for phosphorus has been challenged by another analysis 
which instead predicts that it will occur in 2034. In analogy with the 
peaks for oil production in the 1970s, it is concluded that the observed 
peak at the end of the 1980s was not a true maximum production peak, and 
was instead a consequence of political factors such as the collapse of the 
Former Soviet Union and a decreased demand for fertilizer from Western 
Europe. In any event, it is clear that the reserve of phosphate rock will 
at some point fail demand for it and without an alternative source of 
phosphorus fertilizer humanity will begin to starve, let alone produce 

In contrast to fossil fuels, say, phosphorus can be recycled, but if 
phosphorus is wasted, there is no substitute for it. The evidence is that 
the world is using up its relatively limited supplies of phosphates in 
concentrated form. In Asia, agriculture has been enabled through returning 
animal and human manure to the soil, for example in the form of sewage 
sludge, and it is suggested that by the use of composting toilets, urine 
diversion, more efficient ways of using fertilizer and more efficient 
technology, the potential problem of phosphorus depletion might be 
circumvented. It all seems to add up to the same thing, that we will need 
to use less and more efficiently, whether that be fossil resources, or food 
products, including our own human waste. We are all bound on this planet 
and depend mutually on the various provisions of her. There are now so many 
of us that we will be unable to maintain current profligacy. In the form of 
localised communities as the global village will devolve into by the 
inevitable reduction in transportation, such strategies would seem sensible 
to food production at the local level. "Small is beautiful" as Schumacher 
wrote those many years ago, emphasising a system of "economics as if people 

Running Low on Gas.

Helium is a remarkable material, with some unique properties, especially in 
liquid form in which it is used as a coolant, for example to run 
superconducting magnets inter alia in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging; the 
safer alternative to x-ray body scanners) applications. It is also used as 
a blanket-gas to shield sensitive materials from atmospheric oxygen, and 
enable certain chemical reactions to be performed, and in specialist 
welding operations in which the weld is stronger when the metal surface has 
not been exposed to reactive atmospheric gases. Helium finds further 
application in gas-cooled nuclear reactors, as a heat-transfer agent.

Most of the world's helium is found in the United States, and it is 
recovered by separating it from natural gas with which it is coincident. 
Helium arises from the decay of radioactive elements like thorium and 
uranium, whose atomic nuclei decay to form alpha-particles - helium nuclei 
- - which form elemental helium by capturing a couple of electrons from their 
surrounding media. The majority of helium - since it is a material of low 
mass - simply rises into the atmosphere and escapes the Earth's 
gravitational pull to dissipate into outer-space, but some of it becomes 
trapped in the rocky formations of gas-wells, from which it may be 
recovered in concentrations of up to 7%.

As is the case for all fossil-materials, natural gas was laid-down in long 
times past and we will eventually use it up, especially against current 
rising demand for it. It is the same story for oil, ultimately coal, and 
indeed uranium, so most of our current energy production methods are living 
on borrowed time. Helium is also a fossil material, but it can be recycled, 
as I recall from working at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in 
Switzerland, which uses huge amounts of liquid helium to cool the vast 
array of magnets used to steer beams of charged particles, particularly 
muons, toward particular experimental arrangements. At PSI, the helium is 
recovered and liquefied on site so it can be recycled, since it is a 
comparatively expensive substance, and another recollection about it is 
that it diffuses through the steel walls of cylinders in which it is stored 
under high pressure. If you get a new helium cylinder and don't use it for 
say, 6 months, when you attach the pressure valve, about half of it has 

While the world would certainly not grind to a complete halt if all its 
particle physics institutes had to close-down in the absence of helium, 
modern medicine would be disadvantaged and need to return to using x-rays 
as a means to "photograph" the inside of human bodies as in the CT-scanner 
alternatives to MRI. If we run short of natural gas, however, the world 
won't run on with this fact largely unnoticed, and peak gas looks to hit at 
around 2025... a mere 10 years time, and more and more of it is used each 
year, along with all other sources to slake a dust-dry thirst for energy.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at 
Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); 
rising to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the U.K. 
at the age of 34.

A prolific author, Chris has published more than 400 research and popular 
science articles (some in national newspapers: The Independent and The 
Daily Telegraph)

- -- 


"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

Paul's book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see

Read my 'essay' weblog, "Ecolonomics", at:

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
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