Worstall on rare metals
Mar 10, 2012
Bishop Hill in Economics

With Gaia Vince's take on indium futures having proven mistaken, it's interesting to see Tim Worstall's look last year at availability of another rare metal: tellurium, which finds a major application in solar panels. Tim has crunched the numbers and worked out just how much of it we have at current usage rates:

So, even for [tellurium] one of the rarest metals on the planet we seem to have a million year supply of it. We could, at this point, say that the environmentalists are obviously correct, there is a risk of running out and we’d better do something about it. But worrying about what happens in a million years time is really a very slightly silly thing to be worrying about: the odds that our species will still be here at that time are pretty low, let alone the idea that we’ll be reliant upon Cd/Te solar panels.

So, no, we don’t in fact face an actual shortage of atoms of the right elements. You’re welcome to try the same calculations with any other element you choose and while you might come up with different time spans, the basic conclusion will be the same: we simply don’t have a shortage of elements.

Tim has also picked up on the indium story here, and adds these further thoughts by email:

A thought that occured to me this morning.

If you look at the USGS thing they say that the lead/zinc ores often only have 1 ppm of indium.

At current indium prices of course we don't try to extract it.

However, look over at gold mining: 1 gramme per tonne, 1 g Au per tonne rock is considered quite a nice ore these days. Certainly worth processing.

Sure, gold is $55,000 a kg, not the $550 per kg of indium.

But that just shows it's an economic point, not a technical or resource limitaiton one.

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