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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spaceship Earth and Finite Resources

I read in the New York Times that the Ford Motor Company is using boron in the new Ford Fiesta, entering the North American market in 2010. Adding boron to steel makes it stronger so Ford will use boron strengthened steel extensively in their new model. One result will be greater protection for drivers and passengers in the event of a collision. Another result will be an increase in the use of boron.

Crediting Wikipedia, the NYT wrote that "...boron is relatively rare, representing only 0.001 percent of the Earth's crust. The worldwide deposits are estimated as 10 million tons... ." They continue, "Nearly all boron ore is extracted for refinement into boric acid for antiseptic, insecticide and flame retardant, or borax for detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes...," with nearly three-quarters coming from Turkey.

Reading the above paragraph made me gasp. The worldwide deposits are only estimated to be 10 million tons? Can that be true? Boron, of Twenty Mule Team Borax fame, is found mostly in Turkey today and we have but 10 million tons of the stuff? True? Possibly.

Trying to write about his makes me aware of how little I understand terms such as: reserves, reserve base, depletion allowance. The bottom line seems to be that according to the United States government, "At current levels of consumption, world resources are adequate for the foreseeable future."

In the USGS report we learn the reserve base for boron is 410,000 (something) while the world's production of boron was an average 4465 (something). Does this mean the world's reserve base will be exhausted in less than 92 years?

No, it doesn't. There will be lots more boron discovered in the intervening years. But, we may discover more uses for boron, like in hardening steel. It is proving to be a remarkably handy mineral. It is used in fiberglass production, the manufacture of soaps and detergents, agriculture, steel making and numerous other applications and products. More uses would throw the current levels of consumption figures into the dumpster.

My point? Boron appears to be in somewhat limited supply. The supply rooms of Spaceship Earth are not brimming with the stuff. Whether it will last another century, or another three centuries, I am sure there are those who can see a future without easily attainable boron. The strip mines will be closed.

At this time, the recycling of boron is insignificant. We mine it, we use it, we deplete it.

Addendum: I was chatting with someone who wanted to argue about my concerns. The experts say our boron will last centuries, relax, I was told. Ah yes, when I was a boy fish, like cod, were a renewable resource and would never run out. We had an infinite supply. In the future the oceans of the world would feed the world. Today the list of threatened, or essentially eliminated global fish stocks, grows longer by the year. The infinite supply of cod is gone, and it took just decades. They just don't make infinite supplies like they once did. ;-)

Cheers,
Rockinon

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