Mind & Matter


Charting Mineral Horizons

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Credit: New Scientist magazine.


With the 40th anniversary of Earth Day just hovering in the rearview mirror, it’s a good time to assess the current state of global material affairs. Heavily consumed minerals have attracted significant attention lately, given their high demand and rapid depletion. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, resources commonly used in building construction such as copper, tin, and zinc, all face imminent shortages—all within the current century. Rare metals such as indium, gallium, and tantalum—which are currently being consumed at a rapid pace to make products such as flat screen tvs and cell phones—have even shorter depletion horizons.

A good synopsis of our global mineral picture is captured in David Cohen’s article entitled, “Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit,” in New Scientist magazine. The included charts are particularly compelling, as they visualize remaining international mineral supplies both geographically and temporally. The reality depicted by these graphics is dire, but what can be done about the situation?

According to material chemist Armin Reller, “We need to minimize waste, find substitutes where possible, and recycle the rest." However, the conventional wisdom of 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) may not be an adequate solution in the case of rapidly depleted minerals. Rather, new products need to be designed with alternative—and ideally renewable—material feedstocks in mind.

After all, there will be no easy solution when we run out of minerals like platinum—which is currently used to make catalytic converters and fuel cells. Remarks Cohen, “Unlike with oil or diamonds, there is no synthetic alternative: platinum is a chemical element, and once we have used it all there is no way on earth of getting any more.”




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.