Mining the waste dumps
Where there's trash there's treasure
Everybody’s talking about the latest global economic crunch – a shortage of raw material resources. It’s not like we’re actually running out of coal, oil or gas, and there’s plenty of lithium in the Salton Sea. But production capacities for nickel, aluminium, titanium and a bunch of rare-earth minerals are causing major headaches worldwide.
War in eastern Europe, coming on the heels of the covid pandemic, further disrupted supply chains and trade routes that were already in disarray. Production plans for high-tech products like microchips and EV batteries can be trashed by one critical component or metal being in short supply, and stockpiling isn’t always an option.
Advanced technologies have been riding a wave of exponentially declining costs, driven by the learning curve and increasing scale. Solar power, fuel cells, robot cars and air taxis have all benefitted; but now resource constraints are wrecking the economics of innovation. Tesla’s Texas Gigafactory was designed to make 10 million cars per year – but only if they have enough raw materials to keep the robots busy.
The age of extraction is slowly dying; but nanotech hasn’t yet given us the ability to create exotic molecules out of dust or garbage. That prospect is tantalizingly close, but probably still a decade or two away. Rearranging atoms to make new elements is possible, but not yet commercially viable. Apart from graphene, mass-producing nanomaterials is just too costly.
In the meantime, we need to mine unconventional sources for critical materials, sources like landfills, e-waste dumps and recycling centers. Reuse of scarce resources isn’t just good for the planet – it’s become an economic imperative, and a major business opportunity.
Turning a waste stream into an income stream – now there’s a thought!
Warning: Hazardous thinking at work
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