The Why Files The Why Files --

Shortages looming: Phosphorus, copper, rare metals

Call the cop(pers)?

Copper is a handy metal. Known to the ancients, it was alloyed with tin and lead to form the strong alloy bronze, which made the best weapons during the bronze age. In the electric age, copper is mainly used in electrical cables, but also in pipes, motors, and countless high-tech applications.

Thousands of short, shiny copper wires in a large pile
Most uses for copper focus on its excellent electrical conductivity. These copper electrodes were only recently exposed to the air, and have not begun to dull through oxidation.

As of January, 2008, the price of copper had tripled in five years, and thieves are stealing copper pipes, cables and roofing from churches and abandoned homes. Those high copper prices are fueled by the global economic boom, especially in China, which absorbed 64 percent of the increase in copper production in 2007.

New discoveries of copper ore are not keeping up with current usage, and we read that copper mines could be exhausted in 61 years at today's rate of use (see #3 in the bibliography), or much sooner at the accelerated rate needed by tomorrow's economy.

The total amount (not annual use) of copper in use, in a developed country, is 200 kilograms per person, but only about 25 kilograms in developing nations. Could tomorrow's copper mines supply everybody with 200 kilograms? Barely, according to calculations by Thomas Graedel, head of the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University (see #4 in the bibliography). Graedel and colleagues wrote that providing every person on the planet with the same amount of copper, "would appear to require conversion of essentially all of the ore in the lithosphere [Earth's crust] to stock-in-use plus near-complete recycling of the metals from that point forward."

The article was not intended as a scare tactic, Graedel wrote, but as an effort to view the copper supply from the standpoint of resources, especially because most of the ore being discovered is low-grade rock that is more expensive to extract and use. Copper mines would essentially close down if Graedel is correct, and the copper industry would shift to reusing cast-off copper -- to recycling.

Large demand x short supply = high prices

Calculating future supplies of basic commodities is complex, and the supply, demand and price of copper will be governed by many changing, interacting factors:

cuSupply and purity of copper ore

cuTechnical advances that affect the price of mining and processing ore

cuThe price of energy for mining and processing

cuThe need for the services (such as conducting electricity or carrying water) that copper can provide

cuThe availability and cost of cheaper alternatives to copper (like plastic pipe) that reduce demand

cuThe development of new uses for copper, such as in photovoltaic cells

cuRecycling programs that reduce the demand for new copper

cuEnvironmental restrictions on mines and mills

"Running out of copper" is a scary thought to anybody who relies on electricity, but the real danger is running out of affordable copper. If copper gets scarce, many people could be priced out of the market.

Not so fast!

We could not reach Graedel for an interview, but we did get economist's view of copper from John Tilton, of the Department of Economics and Business at the Colorado School of Mines (for Tilton's full response to Graedel, see #5 in the bibliography.)

Although copper consumption has exploded in the last century, and deposits of high-grade ores were exhausted first, Tilton discounts the odds of an imminent shortage. Anybody looking forward from 1908, he adds, would have anticipated a "tremendous problem to obtain the copper we needed at a price we could afford, but that did not happen." Instead, he says, massive price hikes and shortages were avoided by technological improvements, "in exploration technology, mining techniques, milling, smelting, refining, the ability to recycle material we could not previously recycle."

Is it blind faith to assume that new technology will continue to offset the costs of ever-lower grades of ore? "Nobody knows the future," Tilton says, "but the depletion issue in my mind boils down to the cost-increasing effects of depletion, due to having to process poorer quality resources, with the cost-reducing effects of new technology. Maybe in 100 years, we will look back and say depletion won the race, but it's also possible that the next 100 years will look like the prior 100 years."

Five tarnished copper tools, each shaped with handle and sharp point
These Copper Culture tools from Northern Wisconsin were made between 4,000 B.C. and 1,200 B.C.

Looking at the true cost...

Today, copper's high price ensures that a large percentage of it is recycled in the United States (indeed, the industry claims that no other common metal has such a high rate of recycling). But we Why Filers figure that spending money to promote recycling is a smart way to keep copper from being entombed in garbage dumps, which would cut the demand for new copper, and stretch supplies.

Economists call this approach the "precautionary principle," and liken it to insurance, but Tilton stresses that insurance policies carry a cost. Gathering and recycling more copper could be the most effective way to avoid future depletion, he admits, but he thinks it's more cost-effective to "invest that money in new technology that reduces the cost of producing copper" from low-grade ore.

 Giant hole in the ground with a pool of water at the bottom
Photo: Wikipedia
The Berkeley pit operated near Butte, Mont. Between 1955 and 1982, and is now a giant Superfund site holding a vast pool of highly acidic water contaminated by toxic heavy metals.

If such a bottom-line approach is used, however, environmental economists want to factor in the true cost of copper, including "externalities" like pollution or social disruption that presently elude the balance sheet. As Graedel and co-authors wrote in 2007 (see #6 in the bibliography), "One needs to visit the Berkeley pit in Butte, Montana, or the dying copper towns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to see that the price paid for the copper stock now in use falls short of all the costs arising from its production."

Mine the peaks of our bibliography.

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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