back to article The rare metals debate: Only trace elements of sanity found

The scene is an early morning current affairs radio show. Very important people talk to the nation here. John Humphrys (for it is he): Mr. Worstall, why is it that your new report shows that soon all will be dead? Worstall: John, it's 7am. Currently there is food in the fridges of the nation for breakfast. But in two hours …


  1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

    Other metals?

    I suppose it would be a tad trollish to ask about Scandium.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Other metals?

      Always a byproduct, as it never forms an ore (as with hafnium). Present in a lot of different minerals in small quantities. Can be processed out of the wastes of tantalum, niobium, tin, tungsten processing. Lots in the wastes of the bauxite industry. Zirconia processing.....lots of potential sources.

      1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

        Re: Other metals?

        Thanks. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Paul Crawford Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thanks for an interesting article - certainly I had no idea of the definitions used, and how by-product elements are, by definition, ones without reserves.

  3. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    USGS server down?

    I can't get DNS resolution for the USGS at the moment (10:20 BST Sunday). Have we got a Tim Worstall effect to go with the Slashdot one?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: USGS server down?

      USGS has clearly either run out of computing resources OR someone is about to corner the market on rare earth minerals, take your pick. And I prefer conspiracy theories for my breakfast, thank you very much.

      Great article Tim.

    2. Chris Miller

      Re: USGS server down?

      It's worse than that, JimArthur, is currently down! Either there's a large-scale cyber-attack taking place on the US, or midnight Saturday west coast time is a favourite for planned maintenance.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: USGS server down?

        Even worse - Dilbert is also down. Has The Big One hit?

        1. Chris Miller

          Re: USGS server down?

          Dilbert sits on the same IP subnet as Gocomics, hosted by Lightedge in Des Moines (of all places).

          The USGS is back up again, BTW.

  4. John H Woods Silver badge

    Tim Worstal ...

    ... the thinking man's Jeremy Clarkson (and I mean that as a compliment) - he just punches you in the face with his logic.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Tim Worstal ...

      All publicity is good long as they spell the name right.


      Unlike my moniker here in the forums which was a spelling mistake of mine many Moons would be that first log in at a place where I work for a decade that suffers the typo, wouldn't it?

      1. John Sager

        Re: Tim Worstal ...

        Can't you get TPTP at ElReg to correct their database for you, after all you are now quite a celeb around here? Or is that a fixup too far that would black-hole ElReg for aeons.

      2. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: Tim Worstal ...

        "All publicity is good long as they spell the name right ... Worstall"

        Apologies; I know what it feels like to have your final consonant trimmed - at least yours is silent :-)

  5. Peter Johnston 1

    Imagine a fridge where everything is "Easy" priced - the closer you get to running out, the more it costs. And you are charged with stocking it - profitably. You'd keep it as close to running out as possible. But as the stock of eggs, say, got smaller and the price got higher, the profit to you in buying some and putting it in there got larger. The word "economically" is elastic.

    When I was growing up in 1973, they told us the oil reserves would run out in a decade. Used it to justify a price hike from $15 to $50 a barrel. Then suddenly the North Sea became a viable oil field - essential, in fact, if we were to not be held to ransom. By 1987 it went back down to $30 as these supplies came onstream. And today we are still told oil is finite, and we're going to run out - but only by the journalists and schoolteachers who are regurgitating the old "knowledge" without updating it..

    The root of the problem is much simpler - there is a finite resource - attention.

    Journalists, scientists (and pseudo-scientists), researchers after a new grant and anyone who wants funding for a project faces a simple facet of human nature. We don't act until things become "a crisis". The article/research paper/infographic which says "reserves are low at the moment but when the price doubles lots more capacity will come onstream" gets little attention - the one which says "everyone will die" does. The false binary - do something or die - is a powerful one (as you can see in the "X is dead" articles which are so popular). This phoney war is keeping many Universities in funding, many papers and websites from folding and many "scientists" in a living on the lecture circuit.

    But crying wolf has its own downside. In an Open Data environment people can see how they are being hoodwinked. In a world where the data is out there the charlatan - be they academic or journalistic - cannot make money from repeating the lie in ever more strident terms. We've seen this on climate change, we're seeing it in emissions... the sine wave is still there but he amplitude is lessening. Soon the data will take over and the lies will be lost - still said but no-one is listening. Then, of course, the real catastrophe will strike - the one the figures didn't predict.

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      The other thing to remember

      is the price per ton/barrel/fridge of your resource

      Getting oil from the north sea was daft at $15/barrel because you'd never cover the capital costs

      At $50 though....

      Its the same with all resources, Rio Tinto maybe sitting on a claim of 1 billion tonnes of silver ore, but its going to cost more than the current price of silver to extract any of that silver.

      In 25 yrs time, there maybe a technology to cheaply extract the silver, or the price of silver risen to the point where it is economic to extract.

      Until then, we'll have to put up with the "experts" running around saying we're running out of pork... silver and whatever else generates a 1/2 decent headline

      1. hplasm Silver badge

        Re: The other thing to remember

        " ..."experts" running around saying we're running out of pork..."

        Pork is something TPTB and their 'experts' will never let run out.

        The pork is the life...

      2. Graham Bartlett

        Re: The other thing to remember

        That's the problem at the moment. The stuff is still out there, but not in enough concentration to make it worth mining, unless the price

        Pig farming is a very bad analogy. Pigs reproduce. Minerals do not.

        Where we actually are is berry-picking in Autumn. All the ones near the path get picked first. Then you go looking under the thorny bits for any more around there. Then if you're really keen, you might consider carrying a stepladder over to get the ones higher up. And inevitably there'll be some right up in a tree which are out of reach of anyone except birds.

        When it comes to minerals, we've nailed all the easy ones round the paths. Some minerals are still at the "look under the thorny bits" category. Some have stepladders up already. And some (notably coal) have long precarious ladders up trees (which occasionally give way and kill people) to extract the hard-to-reach ones. When people will pay £100 per berry, it's worth the risk.

        It will rarely be cost-effective to get 100% coverage. You probably won't send a helicopter drone around the top of every tree to individually pluck single berry, so some will still be left there.

        But in common with berry-picking, once they're picked then THAT'S IT.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: The other thing to remember

          I spend a chapter of the book on this very point. If it is true, then when prices fall, it should be the newer mines that close. Because, obviously, they must be the lower grade and more difficult ores.

          Yet that's not what actually happens. Iron ore price has recently fallen. Mines are closing. But it's the new mines of the Pilbara staying open, the old mines of China closing.

          The logic of your analogy is perfect. It just doesn't accord with the reality outside the window. We never did survey the world to find all the places with the berries right by the path. So we've not been picking all of those first.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The unforseen is by its very dfinition, unforseen.

      Not every last little detail can ever be accounted for and much that is positive is often overlooked. For instance, just look at the birth rates in western countries. Were it not for Islam, the world population would be in sharp decline, but then there is always the persistently reliable and ever bloody horsemen of the apocalypse. They never destroy the entirety of anything.

    3. Naselus

      "When I was growing up in 1973, they told us the oil reserves would run out in a decade. Used it to justify a price hike from $15 to $50 a barrel."

      Um... I seem to recall OPEC justified the '73 oil price hike by saying 'stop helping Israel or we'll triple the price of our oil exports', and had nothing to do with reserves. It was a naked act of geopolitical blackmail, and no-one bothered trying to hide it - there's a famous interview with the Saudi oil minister which the Beeb roll out on every program that mentions the oil price shock where he quite clearly states the exact reasons for it. It also had the indirect effect of making the US pay for both sides of the war - through military aid on the Israeli side, and through massive oil price increases on the Arab side.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      " in 1973, they told us the oil reserves would run out in a decade. price hike $15 to $50 ."

      Then your memory is playing tricks.

      I looked up the 1973 "oil shock" and prices rose 4x

      From $3 to $12.

      By the late 90s/early 2000's oil company executives were going to seminars explaining how their company could function with oil at only $15/barrel, because oil is essentially a cost plus industry.

      One other thing people should know. These companies (or the geophysics exploration companies they hire) have vast data dumps of survey data and are always looking for bigger, faster hardware to analyze it with, turning the surface geophone readings into a 3d map of whats' below ground.

      Resources companies aim to keep a 10 yr reserve for what they supply. I can't recall if it was BP or Shell that got hit hard in the share price when it turned out their 10 yr reserves reserves, weren't.

      I hope no one falls for that BS again.

  6. yoganmahew


    "And the real problem is that the people running the world appear to believe much of this tripe. Planning our futures without understanding even the basics of our present."

    The first sentence: they think they do, but they don't really. Mostly the world runs itself and they take credit for the good bits and say the bad bits are natural disasters.

    The second: see the answer to the first...

    You'd have to be some wild half-arsed commie to think that anyone has or will run/plan the world... ;-)

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Bilderbilgers...

      "You'd have to be some wild half-arsed commie to think that anyone has or will run/plan the world... ;-)"

      Or an American Republican.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Bilderbilgers...

        That's North American Republican, Chief. Do you think that the U.S. is the only America? Better check your assumptions...

        1. Sweep

          Re: Bilderbilgers...

          Uhm, and do you think that North America is just the US?

        2. elDog

          Re: Bilderbilgers...

          Excuse you, Big John -

          The GOP (stupid republicans) is only in one country of the three in North America.

          I'm in Vermont, USA, and I cringe whenever anyone tries to equate the USA to America and/or North America. After W was "elected" I started wearing a Canadian flag on my backpack so the rest of the world wouldn't snark away.

          Not to say that the Canadians (recently) don't have their own brand of stupid and the Mexicans aren't exactly pure either. But the USofA Republicans are a brand all of their own.

  7. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

    Future mineral reserve creation

    One or two of Larry Niven's short stories and novelettes painted a picture of the mines of the future being situated on the landfill of the present. In other words, current manufacturing can be seen as digging stuff out of the ground, using it for a bit and then re-burying it ready for future generations to dig up, thus forming their Known Reserves.

    Is there any validity in this viewpoint? If so, it would be interesting to know when this new type of mining might become more economic than the traditional approach.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Future mineral reserve creation

      It's very much a standard mining technique that when you've got a new extraction method (say, you invent heap leaching to get gold out of ore) then the first thing you do is buy up all the old slag piles from the gold mines that used the previous method. Because they're almost certainly rich enough in gold still to use your new technique on.

      The rubbish dumps of today as mines in the future? I can sorta see it: although not really. As I don't think we're ever going to be short enough of minerals to make it all worthwhile.

      The reason for "not economic" is though that there's massive economies of scale in mining. It's cheaper to build to process hundreds of thousands of tonnes of stuff and then run that at full pelt than it is to extract a few thousand tonnes of richer material. Usually....

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Future mineral reserve creation

        "The rubbish dumps of today as mines in the future?"

        Whilst the rubbish dumps may not be economically viable to mine, certainly it seems to be viable to 're-mine' some ore's, such as those obtained from the recycling of electronic equipment.

        I suspect that rubbish dumps will become viable once they are reduced through incineration to ash. the ash being a by-product is likely to contain some minerals in higher concentrations than natural ores and hence can be fed into relevant extraction processes.

        Finally, I seem to remember hearing that the metals used in automotive catalytic converters were present in roadside dirt in concentrations not too dissimilar to natural ores. It sounded an interesting claim, but might just be an urban myth.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: Future mineral reserve creation

          That last, about catalytic convertors, is true. Spoken to the people who did the research. Veolia has a plant, at least one, in operation now.

          To go out and collect the dust to get the platinum? Not worth it. But if you're sweeping the streets with those lorries anyway, why not?

          Last I heard it wasn't economic even then. The problem being getting the concentration up from a few ppm to 1,000 ppm which is what the refineries will take. You really, really, don't want to be trying to run your own platinum group metals refinery. The big mines solve this simply by running at vast volumes to be economic. But with street dust there's not the vast volumes.

          My guess is, and it is a guess, is that this is a solvable problem. My first thought would be to run the dust through a furnace so as to burn off all the organics.

      2. Suricou Raven Silver badge

        Re: Future mineral reserve creation

        Rubbish mines have another advantage: Accessibility. You don't need to dig deep shafts to reach any deposits, landfills are right there on the surface.

        I don't know how 'rich' landfills are though. Maybe once in the distant past things were more worth reclaiming - but the waste of today, even the electronic waste, looks pretty poor. Everything is plastic, and the electronics have gone down in volume a lot - you no longer find stacks of circuit boards in most appliances, just one tiny controller. Not much money to be had in that, even if you invented a magical low-cost separation machine.

      3. elDog

        Re: Future mineral reserve creation

        And the physical activities of mining are extremely dangerous. I wonder if the human cost of extracting ores from some of the more primitive/non-mechanized areas is accounted for.

    2. harmjschoonhoven

      Re: Future mineral reserve creation

      LED lamps contain scarce metals, but only in tiny amounts (fraction of a milligram). Recycling LED lamps for those metals is currently not cost effective.

      The paper of Euro notes contain thulium, the second least abundant of the rare earth metals. It is visible as fluorescent fibers under ultraviolet light. I do not know how the notes are recycled, but I do not think they will end up in landfill sites.

      1. Tim Worstal

        Re: Future mineral reserve creation

        Thulim? That's a new one on me. I knew the notes had Europium (used to be used in CRT phosphors) in them in order to make them fluoresce under a UV lamp, as you say, as a counterfeit check. But thulium I hadn't heard about....might be the story's got a little garbled along the way?

        And of course you can imagine what the note designers though of themselves when they realised they could use europium to check euro notes. Hugged themselves, cheered and went off for an early lunch perhaps?

        1. Mage Silver badge

          Re: Future mineral reserve creation


          Beleived to be rarest element in the universe and yet we are unlikely to ever run out of it!

          Even if the Euro was a World currency and CRTs made a comeback. Yet really no reserves, it's a by product.

          1. hplasm Silver badge

            Re: Future mineral reserve creation

            The rarest of the elements is surely Euphonium. Used solely in the manufacture of Brass Band instruments, it supplanted Trombonium that was originally used for this purpose.

          2. Naselus

            Re: Future mineral reserve creation


            Beleived to be rarest element in the universe and yet we are unlikely to ever run out of it!"

            I believe the Greek government ran out of it some time in 2008... along with the paper around it.

            1. Mage Silver badge

              Re: Greek government ran out of it

              Only because they told porkies about the state of their fridge.

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Future mineral reserve creation

          "But thulium I hadn't heard about"

          The more security features you put in the more difficult they are to forge.

          1. Anonymous Coward

            Re: Future mineral reserve creation

            "But thulium I hadn't heard about"

            Well you SHOULD have! It's in the same valence group as Foolium...

    3. fritsd

      Re: Future mineral reserve creation

      This novel resource extraction concept provides lots of jobs and is already profitable for 1-2% of the world population, including 1.5 million municipal recycling entrepreneurs in India:

      Could it be your future job, too?

    4. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Future mineral reserve creation

      Landfill recycling has been an idea for almost a century, yet the biggest problem with it has yet to be resolved: toxins.

      Hideous, dangerous, catastrophic, mind boggling in both number and variety, toxins.

      Solve that and you will be rich beyond dreams.

    5. Acme Fixer

      Re: Future mineral reserve creation

      I was looking through comments trying to find when someone was going to bring this up. Those rarer minerals aren't going to disappear (unless they get launched into space), so why not just recycle them? Like they're now doing with lithium batteries. We get hit with a core charge if we don't return the dead car battery that we just had replaced. Much of the copper gets recycled. Same with other metals. This was not even addressed in the article - it should be.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "The pig industry doesn't deliver a year's worth of bacon to every fridge"

    But just imagine if they did! (he says, sadly eying the Great Bacon Void of the fridge)

  9. Sarah Balfour


    when a Baconium mine is discovered, this will make sense. Tim, I'm sure you're a wonderful example of Homo sapiens, but your columns go right over my head, I'm afraid.

    Still, bacon… Praise The Lard! All Hail The Divine Swine!

    1. elDog

      Re: Baconium

      And would Sir Francis be amused? He apparently died from eating untreated meat.

  10. Rob 5

    The byproducts thing is also true of precious metals.

    I live near(ish) a Copper refinery that has a vault which is periodically full of Gold, Silver, etc.

    It turns out that the ore processed there contains precious metals in such small proportions that, while it wouldn't be worth mining for the other metals themselves, it is most definitely profitable to skim them off from the massive quantities of ore that are being processed anyway for the Copper.

    I have no idea whether or not this source is counted in the figures for the global Au & Ag reserves.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: The byproducts thing is also true of precious metals.

      Don't know to be honest. Just don't know. The process I know about very well. But whether it's included in reserve figures, shrug?

      Just to show how far this goes, rhenium. Used in jet engine blades and the like, wonderful stuff. Global usage, hmm, 30, 40 tonnes a year (thirty of forty tonnes). Usual method is that some copper ores contain molybenum ore. That particular kind of Mo ore, when you roast it (to convert from the sulphine to the oxide I think, an aid to extraction) the rheium ends up as dust in the filter bags of the roasters.

      So, you mine the Cu, get the Mo as a byproduct, then the Re as a byproduct of that.

      Not many reserves of Re.....

  11. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. elDog

      Re: Fucking pigs?

      I didn't even bother following your link but immediately thought that there would soon be:

      I've already reserved this site and populated its Privacy, Ethics, and Legal pages with the normal blather.

      We're also working on versions that will allow you to make any number of copies of other people. All we need is a tiny bit of DNA but we will have millions of DNA samples from present and past personages available to you for an appropriate cost.

      Of course, what you do with these spawned versions is not legally covered by our contract.


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