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

    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

        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.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Assumption of the whats in the Fridge, also depends on the discovery that led to it. We've got this shiny stuff from burning sh*t, what could we use if for.....put it in the fridge until we find a use. Have you got something to do this and that, try this and if it works we have some more. It works, we need loads of it. The world will end as we are running out that sh*t. Panic!, what's that sh*t over there. That will do. Life goes on. Necessity is the mother of Invention.

  13. Mage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    A reprise

    Worstall has said this before convincingly.

    Are there still people that really don't get that it could be 5,000 years before we might need to mine asteroids?

    No Interstellar war by hypothetical aliens with FTL travel / Jump drive or whatever would ever be over resources. Or for human slaves.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A reprise

      No reprise, we're still doomed, doomed I tell you!

      But this is perhaps a conflict of interests. Psuedo-environmentalists/economists like Stern tell use we're running out of resources. So we have to act now and waste resources building low-density power systems like wind and solar. Which use those 'rare' earths we're running out of. Which doesn't seem to make much sense, but that's the Greens for you.

      If we'd invested the hundreds of billions currently wasted on green energy projects on the space programme instead, we'd perhaps be on our way to having lunar colonies making interesting things, including science and lunarcrete sections for a Mars vehicle. It's not like there's any shortage of resources in our solar system.

      Ok, there's no real need to do this, and Mr Worstall did an article a while back about why it doesn't make economic sense. But having an orbital way/transfer station and the beginnings of a lunar colony would seem a better legacy for our kids than fields full of solar panels or windmills.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re investments

        If we'd invested the hundreds of billions currently wasted on green energy projects on the space programme instead, we'd perhaps be on our way to having lunar colonies making interesting things, including science and lunarcrete sections for a Mars vehicle. It's not like there's any shortage of resources in our solar system.

        Better yet, if we'd invested those hundreds of billions in Gen4+ nuclear plant, we'd now have genuine energy independence, zero carbon emission electricity production that we could flog to anyone and everyone in UK for a flat rate £30 a month. Forget meters and meter readings. Any surplus sell it to France. No wait, they don't need it because they already have a massive nuclear build-out. Germany then. Oh, the irony.

        Once we have these clean, cheap unrelenting energy source, everyone has more money, and more energy to devote to other problems. Like investing in a proper space program to get our colonising arses off this rock.

        1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: Re investments


          ... electricity production that we could flog to anyone and everyone in UK for a flat rate £30 a month. Forget meters and meter readings.

          I don't know enough about Gen4+ nuclear plant to know whether you're right or wrong. I'm sure the general point about green energy investment being misdirected is correct, though.

          The disconcerting thing is the way your statement is almost exactly the same as the promise that was made when the first Magnox reactors were planned. "Electricity so cheap that it won't be worth the cost of billing." To judge from my electricity bill, it doesn't seem to have happened.

      2. elDog

        Re: A reprise

        I can't see a mining operation on Mars anywhere else being of much benefit to this planet, at least as far as extracting valuable material and shipping it back home. Again, in 10,000 years+ -- who knows.

        Learning how the rest of the universe works and is put together is invaluable and should eventually help us learn how to live on this place and perhaps go elsewhere.

        Frankly, I don't see the current brand of "high-order" species being able to control their lust and stupidity to work towards a rational approach. I welcome Lord Cockroach!

    2. Naselus

      Re: A reprise

      "Are there still people that really don't get that it could be 5,000 years before we might need to mine asteroids?"

      You don't necessarily need to mine them for the resources, tho. Sure, we don't need to mine them to get the materials... but if we mine them to get the iron to act as a counterweight for a space elevator ride, you've just saved quarter of a million dollars of rocket fuel and gotten a big chunk of material into the bargain.

      Sure, you need to put in the initial investment to set up the mine, and you need to move it from there to here (though that can be done very slowly using a cheap, near-fuel-less ion drive, since who cares if the individual lumps take 100 years to get here, so long as you have a constant stream?), but once you have the system in place it becomes a near-free means of achieving orbit...

    3. Alistair Silver badge

      Re: A reprise

      It might be cheaper to mine stuff up there if we end up building top down. But that is a subject for another column. And think of what that will do to the reserves list when we *do* start building the elevator.

  14. John Savard Silver badge

    And then there's Rare Earths

    Which are very difficult to separate from each other. But they're found mixed together in lots of places, which is why "misch metal" is cheap - that's what the flints used in cigarette lighters are made from.

    There probably are proven reserves of misch metal, in addition to the much vaster quantity of misch metal resources. And they're not all in China either.

    Still, I expect that the people saying we'll all starve to death once we've emptied our refrigerators will eventually switch to saying we'll all starve to death once we've emptied the shelves of our supermarkets.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: And then there's Rare Earths

      From the final section of the new book:

      Rare earths

      Annual usage 110,000 (tonnes)

      Reserves: 110 million

      Resources “Very large”

      Total resources (ie, amount in lithosphere, in tonnes) 9,725,000 billion (for just cerium, one of 17 rare earths)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And then there's Rare Earths - Mischmetall

      A more important use of mischmetall is in NiMH batteries - if they were not so heavy per joule stored they would be better than lithium cells.

  15. ecofeco Silver badge

    Tom's got this one right

    Having recently worked for the largest mining company in the world, I can tell you they worry about this on a daily basis.

    Sorry I can't enlighten with more info. Tom pretty much said it all.

  16. Alan Sharkey


    I'm sure that article has been on here before - or somewhere similar. It sounds very familiar.

    That is not to take away the validity of the article, just the economics or getting paid twice for the same thing.


    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Repeat?

      I have indeed been saying this sort of thing for some time. Thus the collection of the compleat argument into the e-book which is linked to at the bottom of the piece and my giving a talk on it on Thursday as part of the El Reg lecture series.

      Certain arguments mature as you mull over them.....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Repeat?

        You have indeed been developing your argument, and I think we've been privileged to be following it. What is interesting to me is the extent to which future technologies will depend on the economics of extraction - which solar cell and battery technologies become widely adopted in future may depend more on chemistry than on apparent technical merit.

    2. LucreLout Silver badge

      Re: Repeat?

      That is not to take away the validity of the article, just the economics or getting paid twice for the same thing.

      That's recycling for you!

  17. TeeCee Gold badge


    Presumably something like this is the reason that the date of the alleged "Peak Oil" keeps moving into the future like a donkey following a carrot on a stick.

    1. LucreLout Silver badge

      Re: Aha!@TeeCee

      Peak oil seems to me to be an impossible theory, unless we physically have burned every last drop on earth, which is unlikely to happen. The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones, nor the bronze or iron ages.

      As the cost of oil rises, known pockets of oil that were once uneconomic to extract become economic with existing tech. New tech that was once uneconomic becomes profitable, further increasing the avilable oil.

      30 years ago when I was at school we were told oil would run out in 50 years. Amazingly, 30 year of rising consumption later and we still know it won't run out for around 50 years.

      One of the principal reasons the enviornmental movement are so vehemently against fracking, is that it alone would put peak oil back to something their grandchildrens grandchildren might want to consider as possible.... but only if the generations inbetween were too lazy or stupid to develop better extraction methods.

      There's so many people alive now that incidences of true genius have to be rising, which should expand humanities frontier faster than the generations that have gone before. The future doesn't glitter like gold; It's far better than that.

      1. Mike Richards

        Re: Aha!@TeeCee

        There's one limit on oil production that is insurmountable - how much energy it takes to extract and refine that oil. If it equals or exceeds the amount of energy in that oil, it's not worth using it as fuel.

        One thing that's noticeable in recent years is the amount of energy needed to get oil out of the ground has been rocketing. Conventional fields have something like a return of 25:1 - that is you get 25 times as much energy out of the oil as you put into getting it. Unconventional fields like the Canadian tar sands are right down at 5-2.9:1 with shale gas doing a little better at 7.6-6.1:1. The real boondoggle though is corn ethanol at just 1.3:1.

        There's probably enough oil, gas and coal to keep us going before the economics force a halt. The big question is can we afford to cook the planet and acidify the oceans rather than looking elsewhere for our energy.

  18. JP19

    Prophets of doom

    People listen to, believe, and fund prophets of doom.

    Bringers of glad tidings are generally ignored.

    That is why Al Gore gets a Nobel prize and Tim Worstal gets almost no one to read his book.

    Also why every prophecy of doom needs to be treated with great scepticism.

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Prophets of doom

      Profits of Doom, then?

  19. Gordon 10 Silver badge

    Does the same apply to oil?

    Just wondering coz you get the frequent peak oil rumour that the Saudi's say they have X reserves but are really lying and we are going to have Oil-o-geddon any minute now.


    a) it's not true.

    b) it's not deliberate panic mongering.

    Does it maybe come from a variant of the Fridge analogy? Ie the Saudi's have very little Reserves, but they are reasonably confident they have a metric fuckton or 2 of oil resources.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Does the same apply to oil?

      I could see them doing for three reasons: (1) costs money that you don't need to spend until later; (2) props up the price of oil and doesn't cost a thing [see 1]; (3) why give a road map to any other group in the Middle East to where you've probably got it, which also keeps the security situation easier to cope with. Knowing where the oil is in proven reserves and knowing where it is generally around are two widely separate values. BTW, all that oil is pretty much in the area where Shia live and they do not like the kingdom at all.

      Off the cuff and all conjecture. I know I shouldn't ever challenge the universe, but I can't see me ever being sent over there so I'm not totally up on who is doing what to whom. [I never worried about the why as they've been doing it to each other for the last 6,500 or so years of recorded history, can't think why they'd stop now.]

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Does the same apply to oil?

      The reason for the speculation that OPEC reserve estimates are inflated is because OPEC allocates each country's percentage of production based on their percentage of OPEC's overall reserves. Yes, you read that right. So if there were 1000 barrels of reserves in OPEC and your country has 100 of them, and it produces 20 barrels a year, your country's quota is 2 barrels. If you "discover" you have 200 barrels instead of 100, you now have 2/11th of OPEC's reserves instead of 1/10th and are entitled to a production quota of 2/11th of OPEC's production!

      So OPEC's reserves may not be using the same careful qualification as Tim details here, but with oil too there are resources not reserves. The Saudis know of other oil fields they haven't done anything with, because they don't need them now. In the US, shale was a "known unknown" (or is that "unknown known") back in the day - they knew we had it but didn't know how to produce it cost effectively until fracking was invented and the price went up high enough that fracking became economic.

      I remember reading something about all the shale oil a few decades ago and the idea back then was they could cook it out of the ground somehow but that method required more than one barrel of oil to produce a barrel so that method was clearly non-viable.

  20. razorfishsl

    Ultimately when the sun expands it will all be recycled, including those stupid DODO remains and the pandas everyone keeps whining on about.

  21. Martin Budden Bronze badge

    spade vs shovel

    A spade is for digging holes in the ground. It has a flattish square-end blade, and the top edges of the blade are folded over so you can push it into the ground with your foot & your full weight. The handle is not long and there is a hand-loop thing at the top to help you lever out a clod of soil.

    A shovel is for moving a big pile of loose stuff (sand, dirt, coal, whatever) from over here to over there. The blade is bigger than a spade's and the sides and rear of the blade are often curved up to make a kind of bowl so it holds more stuff. The blade end can be either pointy or square, depending on what you want to shovel (e.g. pointy for sand & dirt, square for coal so it can scrape along the bunker floor to get under the coal). The handle is long (the longer the better IMHO) and often doesn't have the hand-loop thing at the top because it's not needed.

  22. Martin Budden Bronze badge

    I wonder if Tim Worstall has seen this Underground* Map Of The Elements.

    *no pun intended.

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      Like it. Not entire sure why it was necessary to do it Underground style but I like it :)

    2. Tim Worstal

      No, I hadn't, so thanks for that. Rather well done. I very much like how he's got the rare earths off on their own line, with the intersection being Promethium (not stable and also a RE). It's a clever combination that.

    3. IvyKing

      The map is missing Californium (unless I missed it). As for Seaborgium, I remember one quarter back in the 1970's where he'd be walking down the steps between the Greek Theater at Gayley Road while I was walking up those same steps…

      Another good read from Tim.

      1. DugEBug

        The map is missing Californium because it fell into the sea. (sorry).

  23. paulc


    Plenty of 'reserve' in landfill... and we know where it all is as well...

  24. Pellinor

    On the Hafnium point: is this like saying (taking your fridge analogy):

    - to make decent fried bread we need bacon fat

    - bacon fat gets left in the pan when we fry bacon


    - we have lots of packets marked "bacon" in the fridge

    - there are none marked "bacon fat"

    - so we cannot have any fried bread for breakfast :-(

    1. Tim Worstal

      An excellent extension of the analogy. I shall steal it forthwith.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What the article doesn't talk about is the changing value of a resource dependent on demand. If hafnium was found to allow us to build CPUs ten times as powerful as then current generation that ran on 1W of power we'd start extracting a lot more hafnium. The extraction might be as a by-product but it could easily become economical to mine it directly.

    Anyway, great article. I remember seeing that doom and gloom in New Scientist a while back. When did NS become just another junk science magazine?

  26. David Leigh 1

    Excuse me???

    'And what every, but every, loon that wants to cry Ecodammerung upon our heads does it takes the reserves numbers'

    This sentence makes absolutely no sense at all to me - can someone explain?

    1. Mayhem

      Re: Excuse me???


      And what every loon that wants to cry Ecodammerung upon our heads does is take the reserves numbers

      Took me a minute too.

  27. Maty

    shovels and spades

    'Child slaves with bucket and spade (sorry, shovel, farmers use spades.)'

    You use a spade to dig and a shovel to move stuff around. (Think of the verb 'to shovel'.) If you can grasp economics, Mr Worstall, making this distinction should not be too hard.

  28. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    Forth Bridge

    Until about ten years ago, painting the Forth Bridge was a handy metaphor for a never-ending task*. The idea seemed to be that the bridge was so massive that they no sooner finished than they had to start again. But if you put yourself in the position of an employer with a big maintenance requirement, you realise that the correct number of people to hire is exactly the number who can work on it continuously. Anything more is wasteful.

    What's this got to do with mineral reserves? The No-Breakfast doomsayers need to perform a similar thought inversion. If they did, they would realise that the economical amount of any resource is the smallest you can safely get away with. It applies to minerals, components for factories, stocks in supermarkets and painters.

    * I understand they've now developed a paint that lasts so long that continuous painting is no longer necessary. Where are we going to find a new metaphor?

  29. dbayly


    Interesting side effect of the misconception you describe, research into alternatives


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