Saturday, March 2, 2019

Jevons paradox

“Secrets of the Super Elements” is interesting, but I hate the accent of the British narrator and the lack of good background music. Originally, I actually watched it with the sound off! Otherwise, it makes me nervous. But OK, enough about my psychological quirks, LOL.

The “super elements” mentioned in this BBC documentary include indium, rhenium, neodymium, tungsten and some others. Their properties are frequently bizarre. Thus, tungsten is virtually unbreakable. You can probably trick somebody into thinking it´s alien technology! Rhenium can withstand extremely high temperatures. Indium is a metal that can easily turn into a liquid. And so on. These super-elements have become necessary for our modern civilization. Indium is the weird element that makes the touch screen work in your smart phone, rhenium is used in modern jet engines, neodymium makes wind power generators less likely to crash, etc.

While the technological gadgets made possible by super elements are a testimony to human ingenuity, the problem of sustainability constantly rears its head. These elements are often rare and difficult to mine. Half of the world´s lithium comes from a single place in Bolivia, yet lithium is the metal we need to store the power from wind turbines when the wind isn´t blowing. Tungsten is used by the military in the protective armor of tanks, and also in industry for drills hard enough to penetrate steel or rock. Unfortunately, 80% of tungsten is mined in China – imagine the leverage this gives the Chinese government! If you´re American, you might be relieved to hear that most helium deposits are found in the United States. I always assumed helium (which is used in children´s balloons at amusement parks) comes directly from the air around us, but actually it´s an incredibly rare substance that has to be mined.

Population increase leads to increased demand of all the super elements (and, of course, everything else) and it´s not always obvious that the supply is equally abundant. Note also the following irony: rhenium has made air flight cheaper by conserving energy, but this has made flying more popular, thereby increasing total fuel use – and contributing to man-made climate change. A fine example of the so-called Jevons paradox! The documentary proposes mining in space as a solution for resource scarcity, which is (of course) absurd. There are limits even to human ingenuity…

On YouTube, the documentary has been cut at some places by whoever has uploaded it, leading to all kinds of trollish conspiracy ideas in the commentary section. Somehow, I doubt the truth of the Illuminati can be found in a production of this kind, but perhaps that´s just what they *want* us to believe, right?

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