A focal point for material scarcity research

Last November, a group of Dutch institutes and companies launched a platform on the topic of material scarcity (www.materialscarcity.nl). The goal of the platform is to exchange information and start a number of research programmes to aid in the adjustment to a world where many elements are no longer abundantly available because of scarcity.

At the launch meeting, presentations were given by TNO, Shell, Philips, the Hague Centre for Strategic Studie (HCSS), TU/Delft and the Dutch Ministry of Housing Spatial Planning & Environment. In addition, the first report under the sponsorship of the platform, written by the Materials Innovation Institute (M2I), was presented (click for download).

At the platform launch, 100 people from business, government, and science were present. Most of the presenting organizations at the seminar had only recently become aware of the issue of material scarcity, and most attendees were unfamiliar with the topic. For instance, the spokesperson for Philips made a remark that the long term availability of elements like terbium had only this year become a topic of concern at the company.

At Shell, the issue of material scarcity is already receiving attention at the higher echelons. The Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, Jorma Ollila, gave a talk at the Koli Forum on Natural Resources in Finland (Transcription available here). With respect to electric cars, Ollila stated in his talk:

Take lithium, a crucial component of the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars. It can be easily produced in large quantities in only a few places on earth, and current production methods put pressure on the environment. Making a big shift to electric vehicles would require a formidable expansion of the world’s capacity to mine lithium, even if we assume most car batteries will be recycled.

The possibility of a potential lack of lithium was also raised by a representative of Shell at the platform seminar in November. The representative of Shell presented a graph illustrating the availability of lithium-ion based on current reserve figures and the corresponding number of cars that could be produced using this technology. At a maximum, several hundred million cars could be built, making it likely that lithium-ion battery powered electric cars can only partially replace the current 800 million+ oil-fueled autos on the road.

In one presentation, the Rector Magnificus of the Technical University of Delft, Prof. Dr. Fokkema, showed a very nice example of enhancing materials with life extending properties. This was done by adding a sedentary bacteria to concrete which precipitated calcite when the concrete came in contact with water. When this process is used, cracks can be healed, thereby extending the lifespan of concrete to over a hundred years.

Now that the topic of material scarcity has been introduced, the next steps will be to expand existing research, to launch new research initiatives, and to continue the exchange of information, with the goal of eventually expanding the network to existing groups in other countries. If individuals are interested in contacting the platform, this can be done through the mineral scarcity webpage.

Links to more information on material scarcity:

Web site of the Materials Innovation Institute (M2I).

Recent presentation by Andre Diederen (TNO) at the Technical University of Delft.

Report by Chris Clugston (individual researcher), continuously less and less, on material scarcity.

I just have to point out that EVs don't HAVE to have lithium ion batteries. It's just that they provide some nice perks in terms of range, speed, charge time...

Most trips by most cars are under 40 miles a day and most can be done on roads posted 40 mph or less. So why do we need most cars to do more than that? Existing EVs with traditional lead acid batteries do this now. Can't we start to accept limits here?

Mostly, of course, we have to move away from car culture altogether.

EVs don't HAVE to have lithium ion batteries...Existing EVs with traditional lead acid batteries do this now

Absolutely true. The Chevy Volt only has 40 mile range, and will use only 10% as much fuel as the average US vehicle. Current US ethanol production would be enough for all of the vehicles on the road.

A lead-acid PHEV would have an overall cost per mile lower than a gas powered vehicle, at $3/gallon.

Lead-acid EVs have been proven for 100 years. A lead-acid PHEV would be unbeatable.

They're just not as sexy.

An electric vehicle also does not have to accelerate to 60 mph (96 km/h) from a standing start in 8.5-9.0 seconds (the design target for the Chevy Volt), nor does it have to have a top speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) (as the Volt is claimed to have).

Many people might also accept an electric vehicle without some of the bells and whistles we take for granted, like air conditioning and power everything, especially if doing so extended the range and lowered the price significantly.

Forty years ago many people (in Europe anyway) were pretty happy with a Citroen 2CV which reached 60 mph in a few minutes (down hill or with a tail wind), and had air conditioning by rolling up the roof. I owned a luxury version myself, with the 603cc engine which propelled it to 100 km/h on the level in calm conditions.


Also, if the Volt had a backup generator that was only 20% as large, it couldn't climb Mt McKinley at 60MPH - not that many would really miss that.

You have a good point.

I have given some thought to cobbleing together an electric bicycle by mounting a couple of deep cycle marine batteries in baskets hung very low to the ground on either side of the rear wheel.This should not interefere much with the handling qualities of the bike at low speeds.

If I start with a really sturdy bicycle with good brakes I should not have to strengthen the wheels or frame and if I can rig a fisherman's trolling motor up to the chain drive I expect that I would have a bicycle capable of a twenty to thirty mile trip at ten to fifteen mph on level ground.

And I can probably do it for less than five hundred dollars including everthing.

Those big marine deep cycle batteries are dirt cheap compared to the high tech nicads or nimh or lithioum ion batteries commonly used in electric vehicles..

But there is no getting around the fact that they are bulky and heavy.

But if such a bike will get you to work cheaply and dependably why should you care if it looks as if you are hauling a couple of baskets of groceries or office supplies or dirty laundry?


You might want to google around, looking for kits for motorizing bikes - that might work better than attaching a trolling motor to the chain, and not cost much more.

You might also want to consider a tricycle with a trailer - more stable, more cargo capacity.

Nothing more efficient than an electric bike - nothing.

Hi Nick,Getting the trolling motor properly rigged will be somewhat of a problem if I pursue this project but nothing I can't handle at home without hiring a machinist.

The reason I am thinking along these lines is that there are plenty of these motors available second hand, parts to repair them are readily available, they last a long time with few problems ,and they come with the desirable variable speed controls.

Considering I have seen as many as a haf a dozen in good condition as cheap as twenty dollars in a single morning at a small flea market this looks like the scroungers way to go.

I will only build such a bike however if paying for the small amount of gasiline we need these days for non business purposes becomes a problem.And excepting for necessary farm business we only use a ten fillup about once a month nowadays since we have been making a conscious decision to economize on unnecessary trips.

An electric bicycle won't haul our produce to town in any meaningful amount.

I have an electric bike, personally I wouldn't consider lead acid batteries - my experience is that batteries go flat at the most annoying times and then you have to use leg work to get them home.

An electric bicycle won't haul our produce to town in any meaningful amount.

Well, electric vehicles can be built to any size: diesel subs, freight trains, aircraft carriers. Of course, those 80MW electric motors aren't available at flea markets...

Seriously, you might want to google EV's some more - there are a lot of hobbyists doing conversions, and there are 10's of thousands of electric cars on the road.

For low-cost batteries that don't depend on scarce materials, the most likely candidate is probably the carbon sponge lead-acid developed by Firefly. They're supposed to have almost twice the energy density as conventional lead-acids, and much better lifetimes under deep discharge cycles. They're in production as an alternative to idling to provide power to equipment in the sleeper cabins of long haul trucks, I believe. Haven't seen a recent status update, however.

The biggest change that would benefit EVs and PHEVs, however, would be legislation requiring all vehicles to be equipped with location transponders and emergency crash avoidance systems. They'd allow new vehicles with automatic driving capabilities to maintain complete "situational awareness" of the traffic around them. They literally would not allow vehicles to collide or drive faster than road conditions would safely allow. It would slash traffic fatalities, while allowing vehicles to safely be made lighter and more efficient. But they'd be strongly resisted by some (not all) with a libertarian bent.

I like Firefly batteries too. I'm surprised that they haven't taken off more quickly.

At this point, their only near-commercial sale is to a mass-transit agency in their home-town of Peoria, which has a vested interest in supporting it. They've laid off 1/3 of their staff, and are limping along with DOD support (the DOD likes it for run-quiet applications).

Would "situational awareness" require all vehicles on the road to have the new tech? That would take a long time....

Automatic "situational awareness" for vehicles would require an "I'm here" transponder on every vehicle. If something like that were to be adopted, I'd expect the legislation that mandated it on new vehicles would allocate funding to subsidize installation of aftermarket transponders for older vehicles. The transponders themselves would cost almost nothing; the subsidies would be for the cost of installation.

The "I'm here" transponders would use a modified and highly accurate GPS scheme for tracking their position. They'd report position, speed, and braking / acceleration. The minimal aftermarket system with the transponders would probably include a small dashboard display and audible warning system to report when the vehicle was closing fast on another vehicle that was slowed or stopped or braking hard on the road ahead. It would also sound an alarm if the the vehicle started into an intersection with fast-approaching cross traffic. Just driver warnings; no tie-in required (for aftermarket systems) to vehicle braking or steering systems.

Sounds like a great idea.

I'm not sure it's essential to PHEVs and EVs, though. Regenerative braking, especially with much more efficient li-ion batteries, means that vehicle weight is much less important for them.

With PHEVs and EVs, aerodynamics becomes by far the most important thing, followed by rolling resistance and drive-train friction.

My interest in it is for making the roads safer for bicycles, scooters, and small, cheap one and two person electric vehicles. The transponders could easily be cheap enough to be sold as biking accessories.

That sounds great. I'd love to see new vehicles with automatic driving capabilities, and greater safety for bikes & other small vehicles.

It's worth noting that this project isn't really needed to deal with energy problems: PHEVs and EVs won't need much electricity to begin with, and the value they'll provide as buffers for intermittent renewable sources (especially at night) makes their net energy cost very, very small.

It seems like there are other scarce minerals used in EVs besides lithium. We could get around that problem, but still have others.


The only other candidate I can think of is neodymium, which is used in the Prius' permanent magnet motors. Neodymium is moderately scarce (it's one of the "rare-earth" exports China plans to limit), but

1) it's not that scarce - there are other sources that can and are being ramped up,

2) the Prius motor doesn't use very much, and

3) it's convenient, but not essential. Neodymium works well for permanent magnet motors, but there are substitutes, and permanent magnet motors aren't essential either (the Chevy Volt won't use them, for instance).

The Prius' NIMH battery has two elements that are getting slightly more expensive (nickel and another rare-earth), but NIMH isn't the future of this industry.

Keep in mind: EVs have been around for 100 years. They predated ICE vehicles. The EV's produced in 1909 didn't import any rare minerals from S America or China.

A major oil company suggests that it's primary competition, electric cars, might have problems. Are we surprised? Would we find them credible if they criticized Peak Oil? I find their arguments unconvincing.

...it was reading stuff like this -Ugo Bardi- that led me to invest in Rare Earths 'b4 the pack' and make a tidy stack of increasingly worthless paper... :o)

Hope fully I will have time to spend some of it b4 TSHTF!


Minerals Innovation Institute focuses on industrial minerals and therefore overlooked phosphorous. P is usually the biological limiter in ecosystems, and soils worldwide were depleted of P before mined phosphate fertilizers appeared in the modern industrial period.
Years of P reserves are much longer (100-120 without population growth) than many of the scarcer industrial minerals.

In reading economics books like Post War Economic Problems (Harris, 1943) there is mention of malnutrition in the US and Europe, with chronic hunger affecting a large share of the population. There is a recommendation by one economist to continue providing free or discounted lunches to industrial workers after the war because that was the only decent meal many of the workers got.

New studies are providing insight into the aequacy of diet and nutrition from the beginning of the industrial revolution to modern times:

The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World

Running out of minerals for flat screen TV’s and mobile phones is not such a problem.

Paul, what do you think of this?

How Long Will Florida Phosphate Mining Go On?

For decades, it has been said that the phosphate in Florida could be mined for about another 25 years. Technological advances and market changes, however, have continually lengthened the expected life of phosphate mining, allowing mining of rock that wouldn’t have been mined in previous years.
The Hawthorne Formation, which contains much of the Florida phosphate deposits, covers much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. In the heart of the Central Florida phosphate district, the Bone Valley Formation overlays the Hawthorn Formation. The two are separated by a limestone layer of varying thickness. It is the Bone Valley Formation that has produced the majority of mining activity in central Florida to date. The Hawthorne Formation is being mined in North Florida. It is also the Hawthorne Formation that is being mined in the southern extension of the central Florida phosphate district.

Florida phosphate reserves alone contain about 10 billion tons of soluble phosphate rock. Based on the current mining rate in Florida, this would last more than 300 years if economic and technological conditions allow. This gives us quite a lot of time to set up recycling.
I saw this quote somewhere:
If you go to the USGS mineral resources web site, you'll find the report for phosphate rock.

The "reserve base" for this resource is more than 1000 times the current world annual consumption. We're not going to run out soon.



I have a hard time working up a lot of worry about somethat that appears to have such a large resource base (it appears that the USGS resource is understated, if the source I found is accurate, and the footnotes on the 2007 report are accurate:
"Large phosphate resources have been identified on the continental shelves and on seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. High phosphate rock prices have renewed interest in exploiting offshore resources of Mexico and Namibia."

Offshore resources would certainly be more expensive, but they'd create a buffer to prevent overshoot - a zone where consumption became more expensive, and pushed us towards recycling.


Your point is well taken.

I look at the end of P as a terminal point for mankind, at least in terms of escaping the Malthusian scenario.

I am not an expert on phosphate, but I know that much phosphate is high in cadmium and uranium. Also, there is much FL phosphate that is high in magnesium, which is a fertilizer processing problem for which an upgrading process exists.

Much of the phosphate resources are deeper and less accessible, as those offshore. Lack of reasonably priced energy is going to be the problem. There was a cut back in fertilizer use when oil and gas prices spiked last year, and production has not returned to former levels.

The now wealthy nations can afford to pay the higher price. The developing nations will have more difficulty. Soils in Africa are seriously deficient in P and could absorb current world production in making up the deficit.

1000 years seems like a long time, but it is only half as long as most recorded history.

I look at the end of P as a terminal point for mankind, at least in terms of escaping the Malthusian scenario.

But is there any basic problem with recycling phosphorus? Couldn't we just extract it from municipal sludge, and equip all houses not on municipal sewage systems with in-house recycling equipment?

Lack of reasonably priced energy is going to be the problem.

That's not going to be a problem 100 years from now. Our current energy problems are transitional.

The now wealthy nations can afford to pay the higher price. The developing nations will have more difficulty.

Yes, many poorer nations will have a very hard time in the next few decades.

Phosphorous can and should be recycled.

Cattle feedlots and pig farming operations can be smaller and more dispersed so that transport distances can be reduced and all of the manure used on crops.

Bones can be recycled into fertilizer or compost. In acid soil areas they will eventually dissolve, with help of bacteria and fungi.

Food and commercial food processing wastes can be put back on the land.

Human waste can be treated and reused. Home aeration plants have been available for a number of years that give people with poor soil drainage and no municipal sewer connection a way to treat waste. Treated waste water is safe and normally used for lawn irrigation. Requires electricity.

That sounds good.

So...are you feeling reassured about phosphorus, at least in terms of whether it creates a necessary limit for humanity?

Most of these minerals, essential to our way of life, are widely traded worldwide - there are exporters and importers.

ELM will apply to importers - for importers, supplies WILL RUN OUT much sooner than the world.

I don't know about that - for a lot of exporters, the revenue is essential to their economy.

Anything you're especially concerned about?

If the producing countries consume some of their output then ELM will exist, domestic consumption comes first - just look at Jonathan's Energy data browser for oil, coal and natural gas as examples.


If you import 100% of your needs, the ones to worry about are the those essential for your agriculture - so that would be things like phosphorus, fresh water, natural gas. In the absence of oil more or less everything will have to be electrical, so rare minerals essential for efficient electric motors/generators almost certainly will be a limiting factor - to say nothing of electronics in general.

domestic consumption comes first

That's a crucial point. It seems to suggest that world markets will unravel, and exporting countries will control exports. I haven't seen that much evidence for that. China's move on rare earths is an example, but I haven't seen that many.

Phosphorus isn't in short supply, and there's enormous minable reserves.

rare minerals essential for efficient electric motors/generators

I'm not aware of any. Neodymium isn't essential.

exporting countries will control exports. I haven't seen that much evidence for that.

Pay attention, that is exactly what OPEC in general (and KSA in particular) have admitted to for oil in the past year, and what China is proposing for rare earths. In general don't expect people hoarding to admit to it, that's a recipe for war or theft!

Phosphorus isn't in short supply, and there's enormous minable reserves.

Like oil, the rate of production of phophorous has nothing to do with the size of the reserves (we have no idea what they are!), but like oil, production of it will peak - models say around mid 2030s, real world data says we went past peak in the mid 1980s! Phosphorous is traded on world markets, changing price ensures there will always be adequate supply to meet demand.


Neodymium isn't essential

Hmmmm .... in a world without adequate fresh water, phosphorus, oil, nat gas, coal, uranium etc ... lets hope so! Hope isn't actually a very good strategy IMO!

Pay attention, that is exactly what OPEC in general (and KSA in particular) have admitted to for oil in the past year

OPEC isn't hoarding oil for domestic consumption - mostly they're just trying to control prices.

what China is proposing for rare earths.

I acknowledged that - what other examples are there?

In general don't expect people hoarding to admit to it, that's a recipe for war or theft!

That makes it an untestable hypothesis - we need to do better than that.

Like oil, the rate of production of phophorous has nothing to do with the size of the reserves

The rate of both production of oil and phosphorous is very tightly linked to reserves - why do you think people doing HL models pay so much attention to reserves?

we have no idea what they are!

Well, the USGS seems to have some data. Take a look at my comment above for more info.

Neodymium isn't essential - Hope isn't actually a very good strategy

Hope doesn't come into it: Neodymium is convenient for small, powerful permanent magnet motors/generators, but it isn't essential - induction types can be used instead.

Theres rarely a mention of tapping into extraterrestrial reserves of minerals/metals in these articles. Near-earth objects and asteroid belt hold immense potential reserves of various metals that are rare on earth.
Why is this rarely discussed ?