Wednesday, December 27, 2023


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Global Change, Climate Change, Pollution

Ed Hessler

Elizabeth Kolbert opens a story in The New Yorker, October 30 with how a high-purity quartz's deposit formed from an accident of geology. This quartz deposi,t in Spruce Pine, North Carolina is used to make crucibles for the manufacture of microchips. Spruce Pine's quartz "must be tough enough" to withstand a temperature of 2700 degrees Fahrenheit while not introducing any contaminants."

You will learn that everything about Sibelco, the Belgian conglomerate that owns the mine "is a closely guarded secret. Only its purity is widely known.  And you will learn why the secrecy surrounds the company. 
Kolbert's essay is based on a review of two books.  "Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization" (Knopf) by Ed Conway is the first.  Kolbert writes that Conway estimates that "humanity mines, drains, and blasts more stuff out of the ground each year than it did in total during the roughly three hundred millennia between the birth of the species and the start of the Korean War."

This comes with  large consequences. We take for granted that the scale of this extraction doesn't matter and show little concern about the considerable ecological and social consequences. Here are the six materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. I guessed only three. Below are some notes on them.

--Sand: used in building land and for construction. The evidence for the latter is everywhere.

--Iron: Its use as rebar comes to mind given the example of sand above but also includes steel for the construction of factories and machines to produce stuff we buy.
--Salt: "Essential to just about every chemical process that's ever been invented."

--Oil: Conway has to include natural gas in this single category. The two "have distinctive properties that make them essential in different ways." Kolbert acquaints us with some of the important differences and their important contribution to our material way of life.

--Copper: That it is scarce is a feature of modern life. Wire thefts from power poles, copper pipe thefts from houses under construction or rehabilitation are common. I have walked past street lights which have been stripped of copper wire and wooden poles cut down to get at the copper in the wires. There is local reporting on this as well.

--Lithium: "Essential to electrification--a typical electric car battery contains nearly 20 pounds of this metal."  It is a "strategic resource" with geopolitical implications because of its global distribution. "More than three-quarters of the known resources lie in just four countries: Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Australia."

So, what to do? Conway thinks the best option is "unmanufacturing." Three of them can be recycled: "iron, copper, and lithium."  But he doesn't see it happening "anytime soon...but it is at least theoretically possible."

Colbert closes with some observations by archaeologist Chip Colwell the author of "So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything" (Chicago).  According to his classification our "association with 'stuff'" is divided into three periods.

The first period, lasting several million years, is concerned with tool production and is the result of "fashioning rocks, primarily...into implements." A breakthrough was achieved when a group of hominins "figured out how to make stone tools with two sharp edges."  The second period was the invention of art--scratches on shells, making paint, painting figures on stone walls. The first two periods didn't result in much accumulation because everything had to be carried. About 10000 ya, when farming began and settlements were established new objects were created for this technology with food surpluses leading "to new forms of human relations." Societal stratification followed with" the most powerful members expressing their status by accumulating objects of value."

Period 3 is the one most of us know best: the Industrial Revolution with one thing leading to another and another and another. Scarcity, "at least in the Global North gave way to superabundance." While writing the book his family steps "off the consumerist treadmill" and begins a "'slow buy'" experiment. The diet is rigorous: each family member agrees to purchase only 5 items, on top of the necessities, for a year. They chafe and then midway purchase a house and the "slow buy" year ends abruptly.

Colbert finishes with an observation that has been made by many. One that will be repeated. "Consumption patterns in the Global North--and South, increasingly--simply cannot be sustained." Chip Colwell defines us as "Homo stuffensis, a creature... made by our things." Colbert has the last word. "We should change our ways--we must change our ways--but this long history is against us."

A couple of weeks earlier, the October 15, 2023 issue of StarTribune published an article by Maddie Burakoff, Associated Press, on lessons from ancient builders. These structures are characterized by having a long life-span, thousands or at least 100s of years--"the soaring dome of the Pantheon to the sturdy aqueducts that still carry water today, even in harbors, where seawater has been battering structures for ages," the concrete has endured. "The concrete that makes up much of our modern  world has a lifespan of about 50 to 100 years. Material scientists are engaged in reverse engineering studies and have found, for example, the diversity of "ingredients that were mixed into old buildings--materials such as tree bark, volcanic ash, rice, beer and even urine."

Concrete made then and now has some similarities but "ancient builders mixed in different materials" which material engineers have found to have "an unusual power to repair itself." It is the mechanism of this repair that is being sought. One proposed is that the chunks in ancient concrete "could fuel the materials's 'self-healing' abilities." The pockets of unmixed lime could initiate "chemical reactions that can fill in the damaged sections.

Another mechanism proposed has to do with concrete mixed with volcanic rocks. Volcanic rock reacts with ingredients in the concrete and seal "cracks that develop."

Barakoff's review of only a few local concrete ingredients includes materials unintentionally and intentionally chosen. The latter appear engineered to local climate and soil conditions.  Of course, none of these ancient recipes could lead to modern skyscrapers which support very large loads under which they would collapse. The intentions of the material engineers working with these ancient materials are different. How can the life span of concrete  be extended "for as little as 50 to 100 years.

You may recall that Colbert had earlier written about a chemical for which there is no replacement, a chemical we are dispersing to the oceans of the world. This is the most frightening essay I've ever read. Phosphorous and is the stuff of life -  DNA. There is an end to naturally occurring deposits in sight although when is contentious but it is coming.  I wrote an earlier post about it.

Colbert has taken on two substantive material issues and while I don't like the news, I'm glad she has written about them, especially phosphorus.


You may read both of the essays by Elizabeth Kolbert cited if you are not a subscriber and have not exceeded your monthly limit. Here is the index, the first is near the top; the second requires some scrolling down to find.

--"The Real Cost of Plundering the Planet's Resources. Our accelerating rates of extraction come with immense ecological and social consequences." The New Yorker, October 23, 2023

--"Phosphorus Saved Our Way of Life----and Now Threatens to End It. Fertilizers filled with the nutrient boosted our ability to feed the planet. Today, they're creating vast and growing dead zones in our lakes and seas." The New Yorker, February 27, 2023

The article by Maddie Barakoff, AP is on line under a different title. Of course, if you subscribe to the StarTribune you may read it there.

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