No, We’re Not Running Out Of Minerals

We are running into trouble, the website Jalopnik informed us last week: we are running out of the metals that we need to build our electric car future. We don’t have enough cobalt and nickel supplies.

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This, however, is a distinct misreading of reality: it’s completely untrue. I should know, I wrote the book on this subject. The mistake made, and it’s a very common one, is to think that the current output of the world’s mining industry bears any relationship at all to what that output could be.

Getting It Wrong

Despite what the Club of Rome has told us, the potential supply of metals and minerals is something entirely divorced from the amount that we currently dig out of the ground. That’s why the Jalopnik headline – We May Not Have Enough Minerals To Even Meet Electric Car Demand – is utter nonsense.

They do also make some smaller mistakes along the way. They quote Bloomberg saying this about cobalt: “The whitish element (which ‘blooms’ pink when exposed to air)”. But it doesn’t. One of the ores does. The fluoride is that shade but to confuse that with the metal itself is evidence of someone not quite getting it.

Similarly, Reuters’ news story is also quoted:

The battery boom promises a new and growing market for miners producing high-grade nickel products. However, half the world’s supply of the metal, comprised of so-called ferronickel and nickel pig iron grades, is unsuitable for battery production, according to analysts at UBS….

“Smaller producers with ores suitable for batteries, such as Australia’s Independence Group and Western Areas also stand to win. These producers are building plants to convert the metal into a powder-like sulfate that is particularly suited for use in batteries. Sulfate nickel regularly fetches a price premium over London Metal Exchange-traded nickel.”

Again, no, this is to get the details of the industry wrong. It is not the quality of the ore which matters here. It’s how you process it.

If you have a nickel mine, then you’ve got to decide which form of nickel you want to produce and build the appropriate factory. Just as it would be difficult to alter your Ford car factory to produce Skodas – even though the raw materials are similar – so it is with nickel sulfate and ferronickel. It’s the factory that counts.

Resource or Reserve?

But let’s return to their greater misunderstanding: that there’s some shortage of metals out there. It’s true that there is a limitation, of course, it is. There is a number of nickel and or cobalt atoms on the planet and that’s a hard limit to the number we can use. But what we want to know is how close we are to it.

People misunderstand the technical jargon used in the industry.

As I point out in that linked (and free!) book: we’re nowhere near any limit that need bother us. We’ve some 800,000 years of nickel left (assuming no recycling) and 34 million of cobalt – enough to be getting along with, given the average lifespan of a species is three million years.

So why the worrying that we are? Mainly, it’s because people misunderstand the technical jargon used in the industry. They talk about mineral reserves and mineral resources without realizing that these are not a fair indication of usable resource. No, not even a guide, not an estimation, there simply is no link at all.

A mineral reserve is something that we have drilled, tested, dug up a bit and processed, and we have now proven that we can extract this at current prices, using current technology, and make a profit doing so. This is an economic definition: roughly speaking, the stock at already existing mines.

A mineral resource is where we’re pretty sure all of that is true – we’ve just not proved it yet. And then there’s the stuff we’ve not got around to looking at – which is true of the bulk of the planet and the bulk of all minerals.

This is like complaining that the food in the fridge is about to run out without referring to the supermarkets which exist to fill up our fridges again.

It costs millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, to prove a resource into a reserve. It also costs millions to tens of millions to qualify a resource in the first place. So we don’t do this for things which we’re likely to use 30 years hence. Why spend all that money now to then wait for decades?

That’s why, if you go and look at mineral reserves, you’ll find we’re going to run out of everything in 30 – 50 years. And that’s because the best definition of a reserve is what we’ve prepared for us all to use in the next 30 – 50 years. To complain about this is like complaining that the food in the fridge is about to run out – without referring to the supermarkets and food production system which exists to fill up our fridges again.

We’re Not Going to Run Out

It’s this mistake which leads to the insistence that we must recycle everything for we’re going to run out. We’re not. That underlying contention is simply wrong.

Just look at that famed Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth. They, entirely correctly, note that mineral reserves are going to last 30 – 50 years. They then, again entirely correctly, note that mineral resources can and will be converted into reserves by the application of time and money.

Their prediction comes from their incorrect assumption that current reserves are an indication of the total amount available to us.

But they then simply assume that resources out there are only 10 times current reserves. Hmm, 10 x 30 – 50 years is 300 to 500, isn’t it? So it’s not all that much of a surprise that they tell us that society is doomed, doomed, in only a couple of centuries when they add a bit of exponential growth in usage. Their prediction comes from their assumption, that wholly incorrect one, that current reserves are an indication of the total amount available to us.

All too many predictions of this sort are based on entirely and totally wrong assumptions. The truth is we simply do not have a shortage of any mineral, over any human timescale, that we might want to use. Any policy based upon the assumption that we do is provably wrong. So we’d better revisit those policies based upon this incorrect assumption pretty sharpish, shouldn’t we?

Reprinted from CapX.

Tim Worstall

Tim Worstall

Tim is a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London

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