Sunday, November 28, 2021

Critical minerals problem: Supply chain issues come to the fore

It seems that all of a sudden there is talk of mineral shortages and two metals which are thought to be plentiful in the Earth's crust, nickel and zinc, have been added to the list of minerals now deemed critical to the United States, a list recently updated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Partly, the concern is that the United States is not producing enough of its own nickel and zinc to rest easy over the availability of these metals on world markets. Nickel's new status stems in part from its emerging role in electric vehicle batteries. There is only one operating U.S. nickel mine. The situation with zinc is less concerning since there are 14 mines and three smelters.

There has long been concern about Rare Earth Elements (REEs) crucial to the computer and renewable energy infrastructure. Part of the concern is China's domination of the production of these minerals. Chinese mines supplied 55 percent of all REEs mined worldwide in 2020 and its REE refineries produced 85 percent of all refined products.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 28.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Another extraordinary delusion: Mining helium from the Moon

Asia Times tells us that there is a "secret mining war" taking place in space over helium-3, a version of helium which is surprisingly abundant on the Moon. Helium-3 is an isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. The far more prevalent arrangement is helium-4, two protons and two neutrons.

(For those only vaguely familiar with the periodic table, helium is an element which therefore cannot be manufactured from other other elements and must be harvested from nature.*)

The fascination with helium-3 is as a fuel for fusion reactors. This fuel, it turns out, would produce absolutely no radioactive waste—unlike hydrogen-fueled fusion reactors which produce pesky neutrons that bombard components of the reactor and render them radioactive.

So, let's get this straight. There is supposedly a "secret mining war" between China, the United States and possibly Russia over potential resources on the Moon, resources that might provide very clean fuel for fusion reactors of which there are zero of the commercial variety. And, the number of commercial fusion reactors is likely to stay at zero until at least mid-century. And, there is no assurance that the type of reactor that could use helium-3—which would require much higher temperatures than the hydrogen-fueled ones being contemplated now—will be commercially available any time soon after mid-century.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

'Health should not be political,' but like everything else it is

Football fans will wonder how it is that I had no idea who Aaron Rodgers was before the controversy involving his vaccine status erupted in the media last week. (The quick response is that I do not follow professional sports at all unless they spill over into the main news headlines.) For the edification of others like me, Rodgers is a professional football player who is quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He chose not to get a COVID vaccine for reasons he detailed in this interview. He recently tested positive for COVID.

I am not interested here in commenting on the wisdom of his choice. Rather, I found a particular statement in the interview of special significance. Rodgers opined, "Health should not be political." The entirety of the interview tells me that he means specifically partisan politics. But it is easy to equate partisan politics with politics in general which by my definition is a very broad category of human endeavor that impinges on practically our every waking hour. By politics I mean the institutions and processes by which we collectively decide two things: 1) who gets what by when and 2) where personal autonomy stops and the needs of the community take precedence. That definition makes even private family life political.

Americans somehow believe they can take politics out of their daily lives, that they can set up a society in which we all just respectfully leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others. There are two problems with that thinking. First, as a colleague once explained, nobody likes to be bossed around; but there are plenty of people who want to boss others around. Second, it is a practical impossibility for us humans to "leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others." It turns out we need clear rules for how we relate to one another, either by custom or by law, in order to accomplish this. It's also equally clear that if those rules don't limit what the bossy among us can do, those bossy types will run roughshod over everyone else's autonomy.