Peak Oil, peak platinum, peak physics

By Marcus Wilson 14/07/2010

I guess most of us now are familiar with the concept of Peak Oil. At some point (maybe about now) oil production will peak, then it will be in decline as reserves run out. The only way around this issue is to reduce our use of it, which means, for example, reconsider our transport options.

At cafe scientitique last week, Shaun Hendy drew our attention to some other resources that are looking decidedly finite. The specific ones he drew on are platinum and palladium, which are used for high-tech applications. Since demand for high-tech equipment is growing rather faster than our demand for oil, one might speculate we could be hitting peak platinum before peak oil, and perhaps even that peak platinum might hit our civilized western mobile-phone-and-ipod-and-general-gadget-loving cities harder than peak oil. The price of platinum  certainly has gone up sharply in the last few years, and nearly all of it comes from a single source in South Africa (imagine the politics if nearly all our oil came from a single source…) We may have to become more clever in recycling high-tech equipment.

Another ‘peak’ example, though of a slightly different form, I read about in this month’s Physics World magazine. The world is running short of Helium 3.  (That’s the isotope of helium that has two protons and one neutron in its nucleus.) Helium 3 has previously been in abundant supply as a by-product of nuclear weapons development – tritium (an isotope of hydrogen), which is produced in nuclear-weapons reactors, decays into Helium 3.

Why is this an issue? Well, helium 3 has some seriously odd properties when it gets cold (e.g. see Wikipedia) which means that amongst other things it can be used to cool systems to very low temperatures (much less than 1 Kelvin). And low temperatures are important for investigating basic physics, such as quantum effects – for example there is minimum thermal noise to mask what is going on. Some condensed matter physicists are getting a little worried that not enough is being produced. Recently, supplies have been sidetracked into screening the US borders for smuggling of nuclear material (ironically, the very stuff that produced the helium 3 in the first place; helium 3 captures neutrons very easily so can be used as the basis of a detector). 

The most pessimistic condensed matter physicists might even go as far to say that we have reached ‘peak physics’, unless we are able to get a decent supply of Helium 3 back to the physics labs. It’s not an issue I’d thought about until reading the article.  I suspect there may be several other materials that also fall into this ‘peak’ category; you might be able to think of a few.


0 Responses to “Peak Oil, peak platinum, peak physics”

  • While oils is consumed when it is used, don’t most uses of platinum and palladium allow it to be recycled?
    The problem if helium 3 is interesting. Is it like Helium 2 and lost to space due to its low mass?

  • Yes – platinum can be recycled (e.g. a catalyst doesn’t get consumed during the chemical reactions that it’s involved with). But I think the point is that we are now using it in small amounts distributed over a wide range of things. That makes it a tougher job to actually reclaim it after our gadget has expired. (If you dump a bag of sand on your drive, it is fairly easy to shovel most of it back into the bag, but if you let the wind blow it all over your garden it will be a much tougher job to recover it all). With helium 3 the issue is that the demand now exceeds the supply. There is no reason in principle why we couldn’t increase the supply (so it is not the same thing as peak oil) – there is plenty of nuclear material out there, it just probably isn’t politically acceptable or cost-effective to build more weapons-grade reactors to do so.

  • Thanks for clarifying those points Marcus. I guess part of the problem with platinium and palladium is that modern society has a very “disposable” mentality and there will be tiny caches of such metals sitting in discarded gadgets scattered across the world. Perhaps if there is a much greater drive towards recycling of such materials in the future the situation will improve?

  • Perhaps there is a profitable line of research in finding ways to make shiny toys that don’t require as much platinum. Actually, maybe that’s more a psychology problem than a materials science issue… 🙂

    The oil thing is interesting to me. I realise it’s hard to form a definitive position as to whether/when there will be a problem – after all, there is likely more discovery to be had out there, and we can’t easily measure what we have already found. Also economics does play a role, as does technology and good old fashioned conservation – but to my view the better science is on the side of those suggesting a near term peak. The counter position always just sounds like magical thinking to me.

    If this is a near-term issue, there could be some really nasty impacts: transport is the easy obvious one – but the food system can’t continue as is without cheap petrochemicals either, both for supply chain and local production reasons.

    This is indeed the issue that has got me off my bum and back into studying. If we are going to address this it will be through clear thinking and good science (and some good fortune, I suspect). I may have a way to go before I am caught up with what has happened in the last 20 years while I’ve been off in commerce-land (let alone before I can be useful), but hey, ya gotta start somewhere.

  • Another way of looking at it is that we have already run out of platinum. It is already too scarce (and hence too expensive) to allow widespread technological use in many applications that would be decidedly beneficial for society (e.g. fuel cell catalysts). Recycling can’t recover metal that isn’t there, hence the intense interest at the moment among materials scientists for ways to replace or making better use of platinum.